Setting the Poles apart

What does the European Union do when accused of collaborating with the CIA on human rights abuses? Blame Poland.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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The European Parliament is currently investigating the use of European countries by the CIA for the rendition and illegal detention of terrorist suspects. One of the countries suspected of having secret detention centres is Poland. However, the Poles are refusing to play ball with the investigation and are now being threatened with suspension of their voting rights.

The membership of the European Union is appearing to be a two tier one, with Poland’s equal status as a voting member increasingly under threat. The Treaty of Nice (Article 7, amending the Treaty on European Union) allows voting rights to be withdrawn from ministerial meetings if a member state appears to be in ‘serious breach’ of core European Union principles of ‘liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law’ (1).

A delegation of European Parliamentarians ended a three-day visit to Warsaw on Friday and expressed major concerns over an alleged lack of cooperation from Polish officials – despite the fact that many politicians were busy with regional elections and that the European Parliament delegation did meet key officials, including the former head of the Foreign Intelligence Agency, Zbigniew Siemiatkowski; the former and current chairmen of the board of Szymany airport, Jerzy Kos and Jaroslaw Jurczenko; and the undersecretary of state in the prime minister’s chancellery, Marek Pasionek (2).

Carlos Coelho, the Portuguese MEP heading the delegation, talked up the importance of Poland’s full cooperation with the Parliamentary Committee’s investigation into the CIA rendition flights: ‘I am afraid sometimes we need to remind our European partners that the EU is much more than a common market. We in the committee will continue working until the end of our mandate to ensure that freedom, democracy and respect for human rights will be preserved on European soil in the future.’

Yet it appears that some ‘European partners’ are more equal than others in the expanding European Union. In November last year the European Union’s justice commissioner, Franco Frattini, warned that Poland faced losing its EU voting rights if it was found to have housed secret CIA prisons (3). Now the threat to remove Poland’s voting rights comes despite the lack of any evidence of CIA detention centres. In fact, at the end of their visit, the delegation members revealed that they had uncovered very little new evidence and certainly no ‘smoking gun’ (4).

Nevertheless, despite the lack of hard evidence, the focus on the possibility of jails or detention centres on East European soil has clearly deflected from the cooperation of Western European states with US rendition by allowing transit flights to use their territory. If ‘active or passive collusion’ with US rendition does in fact undermine the EU founding principles, then established members, such as Sweden, Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Spain, the UK, Italy and Germany, could be liable to sanction (5).

Clearly the exposures of EU member states’ complicity in the human rights abuses associated with the US government-led war on terror has been a blow for the European Union’s assertions of the moral high-ground vis-à-vis the US. Talking up the problem of Poland’s ‘lack of cooperation’ has been a convenient way of making moral assertions of EU ‘principles’ without challenging the US directly and at the same time taking the focus away from the broader questions of EU states’ covert cooperation with the CIA.

Poland has increasingly come under the spotlight as the European Union feels pressurised to give regular high-profile assertions of its commitment to ‘freedom, democracy and respect for human rights’ (6). Well-publicised threats to remove Poland’s voting rights were also made following conservative Lech Kaczynski’s victory in Poland’s presidential elections last year. The European Commission warned that it was following the new Polish government’s actions ‘very attentively’ under suspicion that the EU principles of democracy and human rights might be undermined, on this occasion, by the government’s possible opposition to European Union policy on gay rights or the possibility of the introduction of the death penalty (7).

It seems that the main threat to the European Union’s asserted values of ‘freedom and democracy’ is the Brussels bureaucracy itself. Poland is the state that looks most likely to be formally confined to second-class status, at least until the accession to full membership of Romania and Bulgaria next year. It is ironic that the basic right of voting equality between EU members is being undermined in the EU’s desperation to stress its principled defence of democracy and human rights ‘on European soil’.

David Chandler is professor of international relations in the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. His latest book is Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building (buy this book from Amazon (UK)).

(1) Treaty of Nice Amending the Treaty on European Union, the Treaties Establishing the European Communities and Certain Related Acts, Official Journal C 80, 10 March 2001; Consolidated Version of the Treaty on European Union, Official Journal C 325, 24 December 2002

(2) EU: CIA allegations: MEPs regret Polish authorities’ unwillingness to engage, European Parliament, Press Release No.239502, Strasbourg, 10 November 2006

(3) Sarah Laitner, Daniel Dombey and Demetri Sevastopulo, EU states warned over CIA prisons, Financial Times, 28 November 2005

(4) Adam Easton, Poland criticised over CIA probe, BBC News, 10 November 2006

(5) Stephen Mulvey, Europe under ‘rendition’ cloud, BBC News, 8 June 2006; European governments colluded with US on rendition, AFP, 7 June 2006

(6) See, for example, David Chandler, Moral grandstanding in the Middle East, 1 September 2006

(7) Nicholas Watt, Polish leader’s anti-gay stance threatens EU voting rights, Guardian, 25 October 2005

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Topics Politics


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