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The fight has just begun | Democracy and the Rule of Law in the EU

21 December 2023

“The fight has just begun” – Kees Sterk, reflecting on the pro-European victory in Poland and the fight still needed to restore the rule of law 

Kees Sterk – NHC Committee Member, Senior Judge, former President of the European Networks of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ), and European Law expert – joined us on stage for the November edition of The Hague #DemocracyDrinks to discuss matters of democracy and rule of law in the EU. Sterk focused in particular on the situation in Poland before and after the October 2023 parliamentary elections.

 

Democracy drinks rule of law

Organized by The Hague Humanity Hub, the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, and the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, the November drinks  welcomed a diverse audience from NGOs, international institutions, think tanks, governments, academia, students, and active citizens.

The evening kicked off with a lively Q&A, where Sterk first reflected on his connection with the Polish judges. Sterk recalled receiving a very unusual letter from the Polish Council of the Judiciary back in 2015; asking their European colleagues for help in the fight against democratic backsliding under the right-wing Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) government. After he became President of the ENCJ in 2018, Sterk noted he continued to garner support for the Polish cause from multiple European countries.

The conversation continued by delving into the broader implications of the challenges faced by the Polish judiciary as an issue that goes beyond just the borders of Poland, affecting all countries in the EU. Sterk stressed that it is not just the Polish  judiciary that is under threat in these circumstances, but the entire European legal system becomes compromised if rulings imposed by a country’s judges cannot be trusted to be fair and impartial. The whole trust-based system of reciprocity of verdicts and punishment across the EU falls apart. Regarding this, Sterk reminded the audience of the EU’s role in safeguarding national democracies. He acknowledged that although there are existing instruments for this, there is a need for stronger political will within the EU Commission to employ these tools effectively.

When it came to the topic of the recent Polish elections, Sterk expressed hope for positive changes in democracy and the rule of law. However, with PiS still holding the office of the presidency, he outlined prevailing challenges that are bound to be faced by the new government in restoring rule of law and judicial independence. The main obstacle comes from the opposition’s lack of a 60% majority, leaving them unable to block a Presidential veto, which makes it difficult to reform the constitutional council and restore the rule of law. International support, he deems, including intervention from international courts, is crucial for successful reform.

The final question of the Q&A reflected on the recent Dutch elections. Although Sterk drew parallels between Polish PiS, Hungarian Fidesz and the Dutch PVV in terms of their rise to power on a platform of social issues rather than (un) constitutional reform, he also emphasized that there are stark differences between these situations. He mentioned that while PiS had control of the Presidency and majority in both chambers of the Parliament, the PVV does not have a similar dominance in the Netherlands. Moreover, he underscored the strength of Dutch civil society compared to the Polish (or Hungarian) during the time of PiS’s/ Fidesz’s rise to power. Despite this, Sterk said these elections should urge people for vigilance against potential rule of law backsliding under the rule of nationalist, right-wing  parties. He concluded by stressing the importance of societal resilience and proactive measures in safeguarding democratic values.

The event concluded with questions from the audience, allowing those present to engage with the discussion and bring deeper insights into the situation faced by the Polish political system. The discussion reflected the commitment of Democracy Drinks to promote dialogue, exchange of ideas, and collaboration in upholding democratic values and the rule of law.