Istanbul Convention: Polish departure from Europe

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Poland’s Minister of Justice wants to exit the Istanbul Convention for the Protection of Women. Whether it will prevail will be decisive for the future of the country.


Protesters hold banners reading “Women’s Strike” as they take part in protest against the Polish government plans to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on prevention and combatting of home violence, in Warsaw, Poland on July 24, 2020. (Photo by Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP) (Photo by WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images) © Wojtek Radwanski/​AFP/​Getty Images

Fresh money from the West against a little more rule of law in the East: This is how the decisions of the recent EU summit could be understood with a lot of good will. For the first time in the history of the Union, the budget will be linked to compliance with the rule of law, Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen emphasized. “We are now getting the necessary tools for enforcement.” Critics, however, spoke of a blunt sword. They saw themselves confirmed by the triumphant satisfaction that prevailed among the right-wing, illiberal governments in Budapest and Warsaw.

And yet: After the summit, there was still little hope that Poland could gain a little moderation in Hungary and especially in the most important Eastern European EU country. Finally, the candidate of the ruling PiS had won the presidential election there shortly before with Andrzej Duda. The result was extremely tight. But the power of Jarosław Kaczyński’s conservative party was secured for three more years with Duda’s victory. And with all the money from Brussels, the PiS government would be able to further increase its popularity ratings until the 2023 general election. So why provoke the EU further?

Less than two weeks after the summit, however, it is clear that there will soon be no moderation in Warsaw. On the contrary. The hardliners in the government camp around Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who is seen as the mastermind of the reduction of democracy in Poland, are not only blowing up a frontal attack on the liberal legal system and values ​​in their own country. On Monday, Ziobro applied for the government to withdraw from the European Istanbul Convention for the protection of women and the fight against domestic violence. The international law treaty of 2011 documents a “pure gender ideology” that, on the whole, even harms Polish women and families. On Thursday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki then announced that the question would first be submitted to the Constitutional Court, which, however, has long since placed the PiS under its control. So in the end the party will decide.

War for heads

The reactions from the domestic opposition, but also in Brussels and Strasbourg, were marked by horror. Thousands of women took to the streets in 25 Polish cities to protest “the legalization of domestic violence”. And in addition to various MEPs from almost all parties, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Croatian Marija Pejčinović Burić, sharply criticized developments in Poland. “The termination of the Istanbul Convention would be an enormous step backwards in protecting women in Europe,” said the conservative politician.

Burić was perhaps the most important critical voice because the Istanbul Convention was created on the initiative of the Council of Europe, which is not an EU institution. Rather, all states of the continent are represented there, except Belarus. So far, 34 of the 47 member countries have ratified the convention. The lengthy process is still ongoing. But that also means that Poland’s withdrawal could, in extreme cases, initiate a reversal of the thrust and erode or even bring down the entire international legal framework. That, in turn, would be a serious blow, especially for the EU, in whose legal and value system equality and the protection of women from violence play a central role.

This is exactly the point a commentator from left-wing Polish Polish aimed at Gazeta Wyborcza, who accused Ziobro of planning a “war for heads and a new order in Europe, perhaps even in the world”. The newspaper is known for its unconditional anti-government stance. But this time it undoubtedly hit a critical point. Because it is obvious that Ziobro is building on President Duda’s hate campaign. The PiS candidate had indirectly denied homosexuality among other things to homosexuals and transgender people and declared the LGBT movement a “neo-Bolshevik ideology”.

Ziobro is now about “gender ideology”. He can rely on arch-conservative circles of the influential Catholic Church in the country. Last but not least, this includes the media complex of the Redemptorist Father Tadeusz Rydzyk with his notorious stations Radio Maryja and TV Trwam, which are based on a fundamentalist-Catholic worldview. After ratifying the Istanbul Convention in Poland five years ago, Rydzyk spoke of “legal totalitarianism and compulsory LGBT norms” and the “extermination of Christian ideas”.

The ultra-conservatives play a large part in the cultural struggle that has been raging in Poland for years. However, the ongoing ideological dispute is currently mingling with a veritable power struggle within the government bloc. The result should decide the future of Polish democracy and thus Poland’s role in Europe. Because in the right-hand camp in Warsaw, moderates and hardliners face each other in open confrontation. PiS chief Kaczyński himself provoked the conflict. At 71, the party patriarch declared shortly after the presidential election: “I have to [machtpolitischen] Take into account the ambitions of the next, already mature generation of fifty-year-olds, who are waiting for their chance: “He does not want to stand in their way”.

This could be understood as an invitation to fight diadoches. The 49-year-old Ziobro, nicknamed “black sheriff”, was the first to pick up the gauntlet. First, he campaigned for further restrictions on press freedom. Then he attacked the moderate head of government Morawiecki. At the EU summit, the prime minister unnecessarily allowed money payments to be linked to the rule of law. In the dispute over the Istanbul Convention, Morawiecki then brought up the idea with the constitutional court to save time.

The Prime Minister thus left the field to Ziobro, who was considered to be Kaczyński’s political foster son early in his career, but then temporarily overwhelmed with the PiS leader and founded the Solidarity Poland (SP) party. Nominally, Ziobro is still head of the SP and therefore has no direct access to the power in the PiS. As part of the government faction with a direct line to Kaczyński, the “black sheriff” has every opportunity to develop. Nobody in Warsaw doubts that with the blessing of Kaczyński, he can take the lead in PiS. And it is also clear that a decision in favor of Ziobro would be tantamount to a final departure from basic European values. In the end, an illiberal, hybrid-authoritarian state could emerge in Poland.

It depends on Duda

On the other hand, it is not only the resurrected opposition against the liberal Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, who lost only thinly against Duda in the runoff for the presidency. Duda herself could still play a central role in the struggle for Poland’s European future. Because in his second and last term of office, the president, who at the age of 48 also belongs to the PiS generation of the “fifty-year-olds”, can pursue his own agenda free of political considerations. He showed that he was at least considering this when he apologized for his failures in the election campaign after his victory.

Duda would have to seal Poland’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention with his signature. He could then use a veto to show how serious he is about reconciling divided Polish society. Last but not least, he speaks to his own daughter Kinga, who reminded her father during a short speech on election night that “all people are equal and deserve the same respect, regardless of what they believe, what skin color or who they are you love”. And further: “Nobody deserves to become the object of hate. Absolutely nobody.”

The words of the 25-year-old daughter of the president showed that there is a strong impetus for freedom, equality and solidarity in Poland, right into the conservative camp. On the other hand, there are also the “merciless” like Ziobro. And there is Kaczyński, in which all the threads in the government camp are still converging. In the end, it will be the party leader who will decide whether the PiS will try to leave Poland from Europe. Only an alliance of all freedom-loving people in the country could stop him.

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