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A strong democracy must allow criticism

An EESC visit to Poland finds the country increasingly divided and its civil society hampered in the exercise of fundamental freedoms

On 5 December, the European Economic and Social Committee's (EESC's) Group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law (FRRL) held a public hearing in Warsaw in which a large number of Polish civil society representatives participated, including social partners.

The aim was to discuss freedom of association and assembly in Poland and the way this has evolved, as well as exploring best practice and the outlook for the future.

The hearing, held as part of an exploratory visit to Poland by a delegation from the FRRL Group, revealed early warning signs of polarisation in Polish society, with people encountering more and more difficulties in enjoying their fundamental rights. Furthermore, the shrinking space for civil society organisations (CSOs) is making it increasingly difficult for the latter to carry out their important work of signalling potential flaws in national legislation and policies.

The event was opened by the FRRL president, Mr José Antonio Moreno Díaz. Speakers at the hearing - in addition to many from Poland itself - included Prof Morten Kjærum, Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Sweden, and Mr Marek Prawda, head of the EC Representation Office in Poland.

The speakers warned that freedom of association and freedom of assembly in Poland were being hampered by newly introduced legislation. There had been a general backslide in the rule of law, with the governing majority trying to change the foundations of the state without changing the constitution. In Poland, we are moving from the rule of law, towards "rule by law" in order to secure the power of the government,said one of the speakers.

As for freedom of association, CSOs were feeling the pressure due to changes in the distribution of public funds. Legislation which provided for centralised distribution by an institute which came under the Prime Minister's Office risked having a negative impact on CSOs' ability to criticise government policies, and thus on their independence.

Most speakers agreed that there was a strong and positive tradition in Poland for protests, but now freedom of assembly was being curbed under the new Law on Assemblies, which favoured certain types of assemblies over others. Trade unions were complaining that it was now "next to impossible" to strike legally in Poland, although the constitution did allow it. In this context, trade unions in Poland were playing an important role in the civil society landscape.

Another problem raised by some speakers was the ongoing process of polarisation in the country, both within society as such and within civil society itself.

The polarisation that exists in Polish society is dangerous for our freedoms, as it curbs public debate and limits those freedoms even more than a terrorist threat,explained Mr Prawda. Views and ideas presented by certain groups of people are automatically rejected by others who think differently.

However, it was pointed out that this process was a global one, and Poland was by far not the only country where polarisation existed. All the social organisations, including the new social movements, informal groups, grassroots initiatives and others active in Poland were proof that we can find hope in Poland, said one of the speakers.

Prof Kjærum noted that 2018 was the 13th consecutive year marking a decline in human freedoms in the world. He suggested that the EU seriously consider setting up a mechanism or platform for civil society protection in order to foster constructive dialogue, with Member States acting jointly to create a safe space.

Former EESC President, Mr Georges Dassis, closed the event, emphasising the importance the Committee attached to the preservation of fundamental freedoms.

Fighting for fundamental freedoms is a permanent struggle by all citizens, whether we live in Poland, Greece, Portugal or Malta, Mr Dassis said.

He recalled that, as was already known in ancient Athens, a strong democracy had to allow its citizens to speak critically about its rule.

All countries in Europe must feel strong enough to finance associations, even if they are critical of the government, because it is thanks to this criticism that governments follow democratic rules. Without the struggle for the respect of fundamental freedoms, there will be no hope for a united Europe, concluded Mr Dassis.