Don't hurt ordinary Poles, Tusk tells EU ahead of rights assessment

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 12, 2016 5:15 PM

By Jan Strupczewski

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Council president Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, urged European parliamentarians on Tuesday to hold the new government in Warsaw to account over democracy but to avoid taking action that would hurt Polish citizens.

Critics accuse Poland's nationalist-minded ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) and its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski of rolling back judicial independence and media freedom in the European Union's largest eastern member state. The government says it has a mandate to defend Poland's Catholic and national values.

The European Commission is due on Wednesday to examine concerns about the rule of law in Poland following recent changes to the constitutional court and public media. It could eventually suspend Poland's voting rights and access to EU funds if it deems there is a "systemic threat" to the rule of law, though diplomats say that is currently very unlikely.

"The EU has a right and an obligation to engage in a tough and open dialogue with the authorities of every EU member state where the rule of law and norms of democracy may be violated," Tusk said during a meeting with Socialist lawmakers in the European Parliament.

"And I hope that your words and your actions will help to mitigate the behavior of Kaczynski`s party. But at the same time, in no way should they negatively affect my country and of course Polish citizens," Tusk added.

Tusk served as prime minister of Poland from 2007 until 2014 when he moved to Brussels to head the European Council, which represents the national governments of the EU. In this role he chairs EU summits and helps to shape the agenda of the bloc.

Kaczynski's socially conservative, Eurosceptic PiS defeated Tusk's centrist, strongly pro-EU Civic Platform party in an election last October.

The new ruling party has moved to bring public television and radio under direct government control and to boost its control of the constitutional court, curbing its ability to censure legislation.

"Personally, I am very critical of many actions taken by the new authorities in Poland for many reasons," Tusk said at the closed door meeting with the Socialist MEPs.

"As you know, to most politicians representing the new power (in Warsaw) I am Public Enemy number 1. Not only because I am in Brussels," he said, referring to the long-standing personal antipathy between himself and Kaczynski.

Tusk added that emotional comments and "overstatements" in describing the Polish internal situation were unnecessary and counterproductive.

"The overwhelming majority of Poles is still pro-European, much more than in many other countries, and ready to defend the foundations of democracy. They need your support but it must be adequate to the situation," Tusk said.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)