Poland – Exclusive interview of Marek Kuchciński, Marshal of the Sejm (President of the Diet of Poland) for Do Rzeczy, Die Welt and the Visegrád Post.
“We did not waste our time during these two years,” told Marek Kuchciński, Marshal (President) of the Diet, to reporters Paweł Lisicki and Wojciech Wybranowski in an interview for Polish weekly Do Rzeczy. In this exclusive interview, Marek Kuchciński also answered questions from three foreign journalists: a German (Die Welt), a Slovak (postoy.sk) and Olivier Bault for the Visegrád Post.
The last two questions from the interview were asked by Olivier Bault for the Visegrád Post.
Do Rzeczy: Last year in December, we had the biggest crisis in the Polish Sejm in the current term of office. While the opposition occupied the Plenary Hall, the ruling majority adopted the budget act elsewhere in the Sejm. In your opinion, are we now safe from such severe conflicts in the Parliament?
Such events should not take place again. I think that each of the clubs did some reflection on its own – also, we discussed this issue both during the Presidium of the Sejm and at the session of the Council of Seniors. As a result, we reached a common conclusion that we have to consider changing the Standing Orders of the Sejm. To what extent and in what scope, that is something to be discussed, the Committee on Rules of Procedure already has a couple of proposals. For my part, a few months ago I launched works on an entirely new draft of Standing Orders. The currently applicable Standing Orders, in matters concerning the mechanisms of operation of the Sejm, are rooted not only in the 1990s, but also in the earlier periods which, unfortunately, affects the quality of work of the Sejm.
When the Law and Justice party was not in power, its politicians demanded that the rights of the opposition be extended. It was said at the time that the so-called democratic package would be adopted after the change of power.
In my opinion, it would be a good solution. We are considering to propose, similarly to the United Kingdom or other states, so-called fixed agenda items, in the scope of which the opposition would have the possibility to talk to the Prime Minister or government representatives. Such solutions could be in place alongside questions concerning current affairs. We are also considering other solutions, for example the right for each parliamentary club to submit one item to the daily agenda of the Sejm. It has been also suggested that in the beginning of every session, there should be a few minutes of time for the representatives of all parliamentary clubs to submit political declarations.
The work on the important judiciary bills took three days. This is a matter of fundamental systemic importance for the state, and the time from the release of the proposal to the vote was so short that it made a genuine debate impossible. This was also pointed out by President Andrzej Duda.
I can agree that in some cases we proceed with certain bills very quickly. At the same time, I must point out that there were no irregularities from the formal point of view. All activities were in line with the Standing Orders of the Sejm. And it is not true that such situations take place only under the rule of Law and Justice. The mechanism enabling fast proceeding with regard to important bills was used during all terms of office of the Sejm. However, returning to the question concerning the judicial bills, in my opinion, the rank and significance of the area of power to which courts belong requires a longer discussion.
The President also said that if Law and Justice were truly concerned about the reforms of the judicial system, the judiciary bills would have been submitted to the Sejm much quicker, and not after two years.
This is a certain simplistic, I believe. There is a number of matters which require proceeding, putting in order, the state improvement programme needs to be implemented, but the decision which matters to proceed in the first place lies with the government. This is connected with a certain hierarchy assumed by the ruling majority: first finance matters, then security matters, education, and social matters. And please remember that the Sejm of this term of office started its work from the most important topic, the Constitutional Tribunal. It was probably the prolonged work on the reconstruction of the CT which caused the matters related to courts, the Supreme Court, and the National Council of the Judiciary to be postponed.
We are at a point when the issue of government reconstruction is still in the spotlight. Some Law and Justice politicians say that Prime Minister Beata Szydło is to replace you in the position of Marshal of the Sejm.
This matter is dealt with by the leaders of the ruling majority so it would be inappropriate for me to evaluate the discussion taking place in the media from the perspective of my current position. Without a doubt a strong, safe Poland based on solidarity needs an efficient and effective government and we are going precisely in this direction. Now, as regards the activities of the Council of Ministers from the point of view of bills and legislative proposals submitted, compared with earlier governments – and my experience in this field dates back to 2010, when I started to sit in the Presidium of the Sejm – today, in my opinion, cooperation is very good.
Appointing a committee for inquiry on VAT fraud has been talked about for a long time. This matter was to be submitted to the Presidium of the Sejm already a couple of weeks ago. We have the impression that nothing is being done with respect to this topic.
We are currently at the stage of organisational analyses. A number of requests for the appointment of committees of inquiry have been submitted. Apart from the request concerning VAT fraud, there were also requests relating to wind farms and a couple of others. From the experience of the previous terms of office of the Sejm we know that if more than two committees of inquiry operate, they get in each other’s way. In organisational terms, the Chancellery of the Sejm was unable to provide logistical support. This is not only about a room offering work conditions appropriate for the investigators, but also about financial matters. Each such committee entails a cost of approximately 2 million PLN for reports, work of experts. We now consider whether we will be able to ensure the possibility for the new committees of inquiry to operate. I have no doubt that the VAT committee should be created. I am also of the opinion that the extraordinary committee for property restitution should include the whole country in its scope of activities. Unfortunately, we are restricted by the fact that the Sejm operates on a small area and offers a limited number of rooms which have to serve nearly 30 committees operating currently, let alone subcommittees and teams. Therefore, I recently proposed to change the schedule of Sejm sittings as from the next year. One week per month would be devoted to Parliamentary debates, a second one – to work in committees and subcommittees, and a third week to involvement and activities of deputies in their regions. Such a solution would alleviate accumulating organisational problems, make it possible for deputies not to have to hurry from committee to committee and enable them to also participate in plenary work.
Part of the public opinion in Poland responded very strongly and negatively to the removal from the agenda of the bill introducing penalisation of Banderism i.e. promoting the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in Poland.
We cannot escape the discussion concerning the penalisation of Banderism. Legislative changes have to be implemented, not only in terms of recognising the actions of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army as fundamentally contrary to the Polish national interest, but also of introducing an effective possibility of legal response to such actions as writing about “Polish death camps”. We have still some work to do with regard to these bills and need to analyse their exact wording. Some clubs requested more time and I consented.
When should we expect changes in the electoral law?
These changes should be made in two areas, and most certainly in matters relating to the work of the National Electoral Commission. We must ensure that the situation from 2014, when a couple of million votes in the elections to voivodship provincial parliaments turned out to be invalid, will not happen again. Numerous concerns and doubts related to the actions of individual members of precinct electoral commissions in gminas also point to the need to enhance the transparency of how these commissions operate and to introduce a better method of storing filled-in voting cards. This matter should be resolved within weeks. Another matter is the change of the area of election districts. I am in the possession of letters from the National Electoral Commission indicating that in some cases the population number has changed, and therefore, the mandatory proportionality: the ratio between mandates and voters, has been undermined.
Is there sufficient promotion of the Sejm as an important democratic institution in our country? In 2018, we will have the 550th anniversary of the first Sejm sitting, which took place in the First Republic of Poland, but the world remains silent about it. Debates in EU institutions give the impression that they know very little about how the Polish Parliament works.
This is one of our priorities in the next two years – the extension of the information policy of the Sejm, not only internally, but also abroad, in cooperation with the Visegrad Group. The Museum of the Polish Sejm to be opened next year and the official celebration of the 550th anniversary of the establishment of the two-chamber Polish Parliament to be held in July are to serve this purpose. I am aware that our parliamentarianism has not been sufficiently promoted so far. We want to invite representatives of various factions of the European Parliament and representatives of the European Commission to Sejm committee sittings. Thus, our contacts with EU representatives will not be limited to visits of the Venice Commission and its questions directed to our parliamentarians on topics of which the EU is, by the way, not well informed.
On November 12, two years have passed since the beginning of the term of office of the current Sejm, and 413 acts and 234 resolutions were adopted in that period. Are these large or small numbers?
These are large numbers. The period preceding Poland’s accession to the EU and the first period of rule of Law and Justice also marked a record. At present, I perceive this as proof of good preparation of the right-wing parties to introduce changes and put the state in order in various areas. It is also proof that we deliver on our election promises. The question is, however, is there not too much legislation. A deficiency that has transpired in all terms of office are too frequent amendments to regulations. The Road Traffic Law Act, for example, is amended in every term of office several tens of times. This means that very few people know the regulations. Sometimes even the police traffic department officers do not know that the regulations have already changed. I encourage all Sejm committees to exercise greater consideration in work on amendments to acts. I have also recommend that the Chancellery of the Sejm – if dealing with a number of amendment bills relating to the same act – adopt them in a block, and not cyclically.
In your opinion, what is the most important bill adopted during the last two years?
I would indicate a couple of blocks. The first one concerns the security of citizens. The act increasing funding of the armed forces to 2.5% of the GDP as a target is very important. Namely: modernisation of the army, establishment of the Territorial Defence Forces and approval by the Sejm of the ratification of consent to the arrival of NATO forces in Poland. The second block is social security. We should include here: acts putting in order pension matters, with lowering of the retirement age included; education reform, i.e. liquidation of lower secondary schools and abolition of the school obligation for 6-year olds; the famous “500 plus” programme aimed at supporting families; free-of-charge medicines for elderly citizens above 75 years of age. The third block is historical policy. The establishment of the Eastern Cross distinction, elimination of the privileges of the former workers of the People’s Republic of Poland security services, elimination of sings of the Communist legacy in the public space – i.e. matters which should have been resolved already in the early 1990s. The fourth block is the judiciary. Putting in order matters relating to the Constitutional Tribunal or the organisation of courts, introduction of declaration of assets for judges, or random allocation of court cases to judges. Last but not least – the economy, including tax acts. The new organisational rules of the National Treasury Administration have already resulted in the tightening of the state budget. This demonstrates that the ruling majority has worked diligently and has not wasted the last two years for sure.
Gerhard Gnauck, Die Welt: For many years, there has been a programme for the exchange of interns between the Sejm and the Bundestag. Today, the graduates of this programme contribute with their knowledge to all political forces in Poland. Why did you allow the Sejm to end its participation in the programme?
I highly value this programme. I am glad that its graduates contribute to the best possible Polish-German cooperation, which is indeed difficult to imagine without pluralist information, without knowledge of the political and party pluralism in today’s Poland. The International Parliamentary Internship Programme is currently being extended by the programme of study visits of parliamentary administration workers also from other countries, who have not yet had such a possibility. Suspending recruitment to the Programme is a side effect of this reform. Also, such pauses occurred also in the past.
A significant part of the public opinion in Poland and in the world perceives the territorial losses of Germany in favour of Poland in 1945 as an equivalent of war reparations. The value of this land and the assets found there is enormous. Do you share the opinion of experts from all over the world that Polish-German relationships in the last quarter of the century have been the best for 250 years? What will you say to voters if it turns out that the demand for reparations leads to deterioration of mutual relationships?
As far as territorial losses are concerned, Germany is not the only such case. The territory of Poland was also significantly reduced as a result of World War II. Millions of Poles were murdered. Millions more were deported and lost their family houses and graves of their loved once forever. I think that it is a false assumption that telling the truth adversely affects relationships, also international ones. Friendship, if it is to last, is always based on truth and mutual respect.
Jaroslav Daniška, postoy.sk portal: As the only V4 state, Slovakia is a member of the eurozone. In your opinion, what should the policy of Bratislava towards Berlin, Paris and other eurozone countries be like in order to also be useful for Visegrad cooperation? Secondly, what are the causes of the criticism against Warsaw coming from Brussels and what does Poland want to do to mitigate these conflicts?
If Slovakia were to divide the Visegrad Group because it uses the euro, what would Scandinavians and their Nordic Council, which groups not only states from the eurozone and from outside it, but also EU or NATO members and non-members, be able to say about themselves?
Slovak foreign policy is Slovak, just as Polish foreign policy is Polish. Of course, we have a lot in common due to varied bonds stemming from cultural and geographical closeness and from belonging to the Euro-Atlantic structures and the related world of values. Only a couple of days ago we held a meeting of the Presidia of both parliaments in Tatranská Lomnica, and I did not get the impression that there is anything that divides us, for example, in matters related to the need of strengthening the role of national parliaments in the EU and of the EU as a whole – through greater democratisation of the mechanisms of its operation. We also share the principles which are fundamental for any union, such as: “equals with equals, free men with free men” or “nothing about us without us”.
I agree that the criticism against Budapest is now less frequent than it was a few years ago. The reason is simple. The criticism turned out to be totally off target. Democracy in Hungary is in good condition and so is its economic situation – contrary to various gloom-laden forecasts. With Poland, where Law and Justice presented a concrete reform programme two years ago to Polish men and women and received a very strong public mandate to implement it, it will be no different. We try to deliver on the promises given to voters in the best way possible, and if you trust the current polls, the citizens are of the opinion that we are doing quite well.
Olivier Bault, Visegrád Post: On October 11, the Independence March walked through the streets of Warsaw under the slogan “We want God”. Recently, the Polish government criticised the decision of the French Council of State concerning the removal of the cross from the monument of John Paul II in the French locality of Ploërmel, warning against concealed totalitarianism and Islam which may replace Christianity. Does the current parliamentary majority in Warsaw perceive the defence of Christianity as an important element for Poland in the European and international context? Could Poland’s vision be an alternative for the federalist and liberal vision of the French President Macron?
I am not only convinced, but I know that the Europe of nations follows the rule: as equals with equals, as free men with free men. Europe of supportive states is close not only to our, Polish hearts. None other but one of the founding fathers of the united Europe project – Robert Schuman, warned that without Christianity and the values it brings, there will be neither democracy, nor European integration. From this point of view, my reaction to the information about the planned removal of the cross from the monument of St. John Paul II was sadness. On the other hand, it is hard not to invoke here the words of the Holy Father himself: “For a Christian the situation is never hopeless. A Christian is a man of hope. That is what sets us apart”.
In the recent months, the President of France said a couple of times that Poland did not follow European values. The rule of law was being allegedly infringed by the government of Beata Szydło and the parliamentary majority. In short, the French President suggests that the Parliament breaches the Constitution of the Republic of Poland and the leaders of Law and Justice should tell Poles clearly that in this way they are seeking to exit the EU.
You cannot reform the state without reforming the state. Reforms within the rule of law are always accompanied by changes in law – how could it be otherwise? Law and Justice, together with coalition parties, presented a concrete programme of changes to the Poles in the electoral campaign and received a very strong social mandate to implement it. This is demonstrated not only by the results of the parliamentary elections, but also the presidential elections in 2015. This is also demonstrated by high public support indicators for Law and Justice today, after two years in power. No plans to exit, remove any state, or divide the European Union into circles of some kind or different speeds are certainly not being prepared nor will be prepared in Warsaw. Why? Because they are irrational and harmful. For all European Union members. Here, in Poland, the country which until the end of the 18th century, for four centuries, co-formed a commonwealth, we understand it well.