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Back to the future — European values and achievements of the past as inspiration to get the basics right

Interview with Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, Member of Parliament, Poland

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz. Source: Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz.

The EU has a unique architecture: it is characterised by a close interdependency between the Union level and the Member States, but also an interdependency between the individual Member States that make up the Union. The intention, in the long term, is to facilitate a cross-fertilisation of values, ideas, policies and objectives. How does this idea of a two-way street work out for a Member of Parliament working at national level? How does the EU fuel his or her actions and strategic thinking? And can national parliamentarians get their message across to Brussels on strategic issues for their home country? We interviewed Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, Member of Parliament in the Sejm, the Polish parliament, for the party Civic Platform, for several years now the main opposition party in the Sejm. She makes it clear that long-term considerations may easily be taken over by short-term concerns, the more if they relate to some basic building blocks in a society.

By Kamila Lepkowska and Gaston Moonen, Directorate of the Presidency

Aligning personal with societal ambitions

Strategic thinking is something engrained in political life. After all, you go into politics to achieve something for your electorate, and most often the road is long and difficult. Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz became a Member of the Sejm, the Polish parliament, in 2015 for her previous party ModernPL (currently part of the joint opposition parliamentary fraction Civic Coalition). Initially, she was not aiming for a political career. ‘I trained as a lawyer and as an economist and worked as a lawyer representing clients in court. Gradually, my ambition changed to doing something with a wider social impact. In 2013, I joined the office of the Polish ombudsman, dealing with health care issues and migrant rights, rather sensitive topics, requiring a sense of empathy.’ She explains that her work at the ombudsman’s office made her realise how much better public services could work if certain new solutions were put in place. ‘To be able to do so, I realised that the most efficient way towards such change would be through politics. Being in politics would enable me to propose and hopefully change something in a formal way and try to change the reality.’

So much for strategic planning to improve the functioning of public services, because the reality turned out to be different. ‘Instead of realising my initial plans such as improving the efficiency of public institutions, strengthening the protection of patients’ rights or improving the quality of specific legislation, I was forced to focus on defending the foundations of Polish freedom, which, in my view, relates to the rule of law, the division of powers and the upholding of democratic values in institutions.’

Priorities change when the house is on fire

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz underlines the importance of reinforcing democracy in Poland: ‘Defending democratic standards has become more important than the development of the country. Which is really sad, because we have lost several years of development. Right wing populism is an issue in many European countries, not only in Poland.’ She is convinced that in the end she and her colleagues will be able to defend the foundations of democracy in Poland. ‘In this context the European institutions are of utmost importance to defend, together with national institutions, common European values.’ Kamila Gasiuk- Pihowicz underlines that this comes at the cost of designing long-term strategies for Poland. ‘It is difficult to think about expanding and renovating your house if you have a fire around that same house, which threatens to destroy all you have achieved.’ But she recalls something she learnt from a professor at a Polish university. ‘He told me: “Kamila, please remember that 20% of your time should be devoted to longterm issues.” I know now that it is extremely difficult to do this, but I keep it in the back of my mind.’

In her daily work at the Sejm, Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz chairs the Committee for improving the efficiency of the Polish judicial system. In cooperation with non-governmental organisations, with associations of lawyers and judges, she is preparing a long-term strategy on how to improve the efficiency of the judiciary in Poland, besides rebuilding the independence of institutions such as the Constitutional Tribunal, the Judiciary Council or the Supreme Court. ‘Because, from the citizens’ point of view, a key problem relating to the Polish judicial system is its inefficiency .’ She realises that other Member States also face such efficiency problems. ‘But in Poland we have added, for the last ten years, new types of cases to be settled by the courts. And this creates a situation where we are sometimes waiting for over one year even for a first hearing in a court. And the ruling party’s focus on personnel changes only has not helped to solve this problem, on the contrary.’

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz sees the creation of new law, instead of parliament checking the implementation of existing law, as a major concern. She gives an example. ‘In 2015 the Polish parliament produced, if I am correct, 30 000 pages of new law. One of the nongovernmental organisations calculated that to just read it — so not trying to understand and implement what is being proposed — would take seven hours per day, for a whole year.’ She adds that for 2016 the situation only changed marginally, with 32 000 pages of new law. ‘And most of the time you only add something new to the laws already in existence. And reading it is not enough, as a law-maker you have to understand it, to discuss it, etc.’ But in her view that is not done enough, which makes law-making in Poland rather weak. ‘For example, I remember that for a crucial act relating to the Supreme Court, it went through Parliament in 72 hours, without any discussions with the stakeholders that should implement this law in the future.’

Agreement on common values is a condition for long-term strategic thinking

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz believes that in countries where politics is not as confrontational as in Poland, it is easier to think in terms of long-term strategy. ‘It helps a lot if there is social and political agreement on the main objectives of a country, or when the governing majority leaves enough space for serious discussions in Parliament. Unfortunately this is not the case in Poland.’ She gives a concrete example where an achievement of the past is used to divide the country instead of uniting it. ‘Take pension reform, which is quite telling. The government missed the opportunity to build on a difficult achievement by the previous government and instead used people’s fear and reversed an important reform by lowering the age of retirement.’

At the same time, she observes that the opposition in Poland is united around at least some key strategic objectives, in particular those relating to democracy and the rule of law. At the same time, she sees this lack of shared long-term objectives also becoming a problem elsewhere in the world. ‘The Capital riots in Washington, D.C. are obviously one of the most dramatic expressions of it. Politics is moving away from factual policy discussions to focus more on emotions and subjective realities. This is not the best environment to foster strategic thinking among politicians .’

The lack of strategic thinking leads to frustration for Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz. ‘This was particularly the case when I became an MP. The governing party did everything to avoid serious and factual discussions, pressurising procedures and getting acts voted upon in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, I tried to keep strategic thinking alive, designing systemic solutions together with non-governmental organisations.’ She finds it is sometimes a frustrating process, considering the progress made. ‘But we need to do it, step by step, for example by bringing insights from scenarios to the public’s attention, which really engage people’s imagination to envisage the consequences of our current actions for the future. This works particularly well regarding, for example, climate, or our ageing populations, where facts and figures give insights into long-term trends.’

One of the long-term goals of the past was Poland’s path to becoming an EU Member State, which it did in 2004. Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz recalls her enthusiastic support for getting certain Polish politicians elected to the European Parliament. ‘Polish involvement in such a great project as the European Union — that was something to be politically active for. And I think that most of the Poles today appreciate Polish membership of the EU.’ She explains that Poland has changed a lot since it became a member of the EU. ‘We can see this in changes related to roads, bridges, renovations, thousands of small buildings and improvements. All this shows how big the impact of the EU is at the financial level, and many people work in projects created by those investments, which could only happen as a result of money from the EU budget.’ She adds that while the former government gave credit to the EU for (co)funding such projects, the current government is doing the opposite. ‘However, a lot of investments could simply not have happened without this EU money, but nobody is mentioning this anymore .’

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz is fully aware that on other topics, which she considers fundamental to being a member of the EU, some Poles are less convinced. ‘Some polls indicate less enthusiasm for issues such as being a member of the euro zone, accepting immigrants into Poland, or granting more rights to the LGBT community. The ruling government party is highlighting these topics to build opposition to the idea of Poland as an EU Member State. Fears and emotions related to such topics are used to convince people of the idea of a Polexit.’

Comparative assessments to identify effective ways forward

When asked what public auditors can do to provide more information and visibility on progress, or the hampering of it, regarding more immaterial issues, such as the rule of law, Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz does not have to think for long. ‘As national politicians we expect from auditors, such as the ECA, that they should provide us with examples of EU added value. Concrete examples — facts, figures, evidence — on what has been achieved with EU aid and where further improvements are feasible.’ Her wish also shows she is thinking along economic lines. ‘What I would find useful is an analysis of the cost of non-Europe in the context of, for example, Brexit. We hear from representatives of different sectors in the UK that they were not really aware of the implications. I think here objective assessments would be most useful when discussing these issues with citizens. A useful product from the ECA could, for example, be a cross-country assessment of the implementation of one or more policies, comparing them with national solutions so we can learn from their successes and failures.’

She sees a role for external auditors at both the national and the EU level. ‘For me, as a member of the opposition in the Sejm, it is very important to use the work of our national audit office, the NIK. Their reports provide me with a key tool to exercise parliamentary scrutiny, even more important in a country in which the government is trying to exercise ever greater control over institutions.’ She explains that, regarding the NIK, the government has also tried to ‘politicise’ this institution. ’However, a political conflict within the current governing party, specifically between the current President of NIK (nominated by the governing party) and the government, opened the door for NIK to focus on issues which are uncomfortable for the government. Political rivalry makes its control function more effective. I use the reports the NIK provides on the functioning or malfunctioning of public institutions quite often. Sometimes they can have great impact in political discussions.’

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz identifies another area where a report by the NIK would be most useful: crisis management in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘NIK auditors could look at the management of the hospitals, the flow of patients, purchases of equipment, scrutinise the official statistics on the development of the pandemic, etc. Based on such information, evidence-based, we can make political decisions and better define expectations, both what we expect of institutions and of citizens.’

Rule of law affects everything

As an MP, Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz has been very active when it comes to gender equality and the rights of minorities. She thinks that the EU has a key role to play, also on these non-economic aspects. ‘The EU is not just a common market. If it is a community based on solidarity, it can only exist if certain core values are shared by all its Member States, by all its citizens. Yet one should not underestimate the economic impact either, for example regarding gender equality. That goes well beyond equality as a value; it is also about economic efficiency and full use of all the resources we have.’ She further argues that inefficiencies in one Member State can have an impact on the others. This is particularly clear for her in the area of the rule of law. ‘Companies can be active across the Union. Impartial judicial systems are the most basic condition for the functioning of the single market. Companies will not invest if they cannot be sure of a fair trial in another Member State. I would say that the EU can express itself more clearly on this issue than it does now.’

She gives an example of this. ‘Throughout the years I have seen strategic change, or progress, when it comes to the EU’s approach to the subject of the rule of law. Several EU institutions have defended the principle values, and the issue has surfaced in numerous debates the European Parliament initiated on the topic, also in view of the recent issues emerging, in particular in Poland and Hungary. The European Court of Justice has created solid jurisprudence, showing that the independence of courts is protected by the EU on the basis of the EU Treaties. The European Commission has also started cyclical reviews of the rule of law.’ She considers this to be substantial and much appreciated progress.

However, she also recalls a situation related to a recent hearing before the European Court of Justice regarding the Polish situation. ‘It concerned an independent judge, Tuleya. In November 2020, the Disciplinary Chamber rescinded his immunity, although according to the interim measures by the Court of Justice of the EU, the Chamber should have remained suspended and did not have the right to take such actions. Unfortunately, for a while now already, the members of the Chamber have been disregarding this measure by the European Court and have continued their activities. As a result, judge Tuleya has been arrested and now finds himself in prison. He is being silenced because he fought for an independent judiciary.’ In her view the pretext for his case being dealt with by the Disciplinary Chamber was the fact that he handed down a judgment which was uncomfortable for the current governing party, revealing details of how the constitution had been violated during a political crisis in December 2016.

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz points out that a rather symbolic exchange took place during the session on Judge Tuleya’s case between a judge of the European Court of the EU and a representative of the European Commission. ‘The judge asked “What have you done during this time –relating to this judgment in Poland — from April 2020 until December 2020, where we are at the moment. What did you do on this subject?” It was a very stressful moment for the representatives of the Commission, because there was complete silence. Eventually, a representative of the Commission answered that there was only one document exchange in that time between the Polish government and the Commission. Quite telling.’ She believes that, with such actions against independent judges, the independence of the judiciary is reaching a dangerously destructive dimension. ‘The EU needs to act on it now.’

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz is looking forward with great expectations to the new Next Generation EU recovery plan, which has respect for the rule of law as a conditionality. ‘It will be another instrument with very clear financial implications which will allow the European Union to look closely at the independence of the judicial system in the Member States for the sake of protecting EU financial interests, but also to protect the citizens of the Member States.’

She explains that nowadays things happen in Poland which were unimaginable a number of years ago, or when Poland joined the EU in 2004 after meeting the Copenhagen criteria. ‘It started with the Constitutional Tribunal to which the current parliamentary majority has appointed judges in an illegal way. Several other judicial institutions have been taken over by political appointees. And the judges who stood up for the rule of law have been personally threatened. Opposition rights have been restricted, even in the parliament.’ Nevertheless, she is hopeful for the future. ‘I am convinced that in the end the vast majority of the Polish people will stand up for the values of democracy and the rule of law. For example, the recent demonstrations for women’s rights gave me another sign of hope. In many smaller cities in Poland the demonstrations were absolutely unprecedented.’

Various incentives to trigger change…also on the basics

Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz is also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. The Assembly has highlighted three elements as key for the upcoming years — artificial intelligence, respect for democracy and human rights, and the rule of law. Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz thinks that this can certainly help to bring change for the better in her home country. ‘The strongest tool of the Council of Europe is the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. But I think the visit of the Venice Monitoring Commission to Poland is also important, as since last year Poland is being monitored by the Council of Europe. Perhaps this will not have an immediate impact but it helps to raise awareness about the government’s actions on the law. ‘

She underlines that the EU has stronger tools to trigger change, simply because they are linked to substantial financial resources. ‘To be clear: Poland needs resources in times of crisis, when many Member States rely on EU funds to stimulate the recovery process. For Poland this is a key factor, because in the years of economic recovery the current government forfeited the opportunity to save money for more difficult times, and therefore Poland currently does not have an economic buffer to protect it against the crisis. The fear of losing EU financial funding is a very strong corrective incentive.’ However, Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz has not yet seen any concrete proposals for projects to be financed by Next Generation EU funds. ‘Currently Poland is focusing on vaccination, that is the first priority. There is no consistent strategic plan on the table to ensure a long-term economic and social recovery. Unfortunately, the ruling party is much more focused on who will distribute that money than on the substantial issues, such as designing the programmes to use this money, identifying crucial investment opportunities that would effectively address the actual needs in our society and ensuring that the money will have an impact where it is most needed. We have seen a similar approach in the past, causing long delays in investments, and I am not too optimistic about the future.’

A similar sentiment resonates when we ask Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz about her perspective on the future for the longer term: the fear that a lot of time and energy will have to be spent on discussions, if not battles, regarding the judicial system. ‘We see at the moment that huge pressure is being brought to bear on judges, because currently they are still the only independent authority in Poland. For example, after the recent mass demonstrations, thousands of people are facing criminal prosecution. We see that through this the Polish government is still trying to create huge pressure on judges.’ Sadly, she observes that she will have to focus on this kind of issue relating to judicial independence, more firefighting in society than building it. Notwithstanding these developments, she sees potential for positive change, also regarding the judiciary. ‘For example, as the opposition, we are working on specific legal solutions aimed at improving the efficiency of the judicial system. I am currently consulting with non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders on a draft proposal for a law to transfer competence for some types of cases from the courts to notaries.’

Nothing can be taken for granted

For Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz it is clear that democracy and the rule of law is not a given fact in her country but needs to be fought for, over and over again. ‘For me politics needs to be based on values, ideas, freedom, courage, responsibility, social dialogue, openness, transparency, integrity, respect for the law. I truly believe that these values are shared by many of us in Poland, in fact by many of us in Europe. This claim is not only a historical one, but also based on what has been happening on our streets for the last five years, particularly during the last months. Solidarność was also based on these values and even now they inspire those who demonstrate, who support courts, who support women’s rights, etc., something that seemed obvious for the last 25 years and yet we have to fight for it again. We never thought that we would need to work so hard again on these basics for our society.’

The issues Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz now deals with seem to be rather far from the focal points she had in mind when going into politics with the party ModernPL, i.e. better governance, health care and economic liberalism. She fully realises this and this makes her even more determined, since she knows it was possible in the past. ‘For over two decades Poland has been a symbol of a successful democratic and economic transition. I was born in a communist country and went to school in a free Poland which seemed to be on its way to joining the institutions of the Western world. I finished my studies in a country which was a full member of the European Union and NATO. I simply wish that the next generation can focus on developing our country’s prosperity and finally stop reconstructing and interfering with its European foundations and its future within the Union!’

This article was first published on the 1/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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The ECA Journal features articles on a variety of current audit topics, the ECA’s role and work. It is available in electronic form below, and paper copies can be ordered online at the EU Bookshop.

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