Budapest – The following is an interview with Jerzy Kwaśniewski, the head of the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, Poland’s most powerful conservative NGO, who was attending the American Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that was being held for the first time in Europe – specifically in Budapest, Hungary – on 19–20 May, 2022.
Ferenc Almássy spoke with Jerzy Kwaśniewski at the CPAC conference on Thursday.
Ferenc Almássy: First of all, could you please introduce your organisation, which is one of the main conservative NGOs in Poland?
Jerzy Kwaśniewski: Ordo Iuris was created nine years ago as a legal think tank gathering academics and litigation professionals in order to provide academic research on fundamental rights and the protection of human rights, and also to provide litigation services in precedent cases both at the national and international levels. We do research and litigation at the national level in Poland, Croatia, Germany, Norway, at the EU level, and also at the level of international institutions such as the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, and the United Nations. We take part in international summits where we advocate for the basic rights, the inalienable rights, the right to life, the right to the protection of family life, the right to freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, academic freedom, and so on. Over the years Ordo Iuris has also become aware that we need academic forums, and last year we established the Collegium Intermarium university in Warsaw in order to provide full protection for academic freedom on the national and international levels, and also on the regional level of the Three Seas Initiative and Intermarium.
Nowadays Ordo Iuris also operates in Zagreb in Croatia, in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, and in Spain, where we have just conducted our first campaign in favour of public administrations’ neutrality. We are trying to reach out to other countries to provide some kind of professional assistance through lawyers and academics for those conservatives who lacked this type of support in the past.
Ferenc Almássy: I understand that you have European-wide ambitions and do not want to simply remain a Polish organisation. Is your intent to become a European NGO?
Jerzy Kwaśniewski: We are talking about universal common values and Western culture’s universal common ethics, which come from its Judeo-Christian heritage, and this brings our efforts to the international level. Whatever is done in Poland in terms of the constitution, international public law, and human rights can easily be transferred to other countries, and can protect basic rights in Spain, Ukraine, or elsewhere.
Ferenc Almássy: We are meeting today at CPAC in Hungary. What does taking part in this event mean for you and for Ordo Iuris? What is the meaning of having this American conservative event organised in Hungary, of which we hear so much in the media, and also in light of the traditional Polish-Hungarian friendship?
Jerzy Kwaśniewski: It is true that in Poland we have a thousand-year-old partnership with Hungary. From the geopolitical and ethical points of view, there is nothing stronger than this regional partnership between Poland and Hungary. Nothing can prevent us from cooperating and from promoting our joint interests, both regionally and globally.
As for CPAC, it became clear after we joined the European Union that the Central European countries, which share very similar constitutional identities and a Christian identity, as well as similar safeguards for family and marriage, should cooperate. Also, from the economic point of the view this whole Intermarium region, which goes beyond the EU given that it embraces countries like Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus, needs to cooperate, not least to provide a counterbalance to the old democracies of Western Europe. We all share the same experience of Communism. We also share very similar identities. To some extent, our constitutions are quite similar as well. Inside the EU we are opposing the process by which principles are being increasingly weaponised, and the “old democracies,” as the Western countries call themselves, are applying double standards in order to subordinate the EU’s new members. Taken together, the Central European countries have more than 100 million citizens – 200 million, with the Ukrainians and others who are not yet members of the EU –, so it gives you an idea of the power, which is also political, that could bring the European Union back to what Robert Schuman said it should be: a union of nations, not Spinelli’s centrally-governed state with a centrally-controlled economy.
This is also our aim and CPAC is probably the best tool for that. In Budapest, after the conservatives’ election victory, we are focusing on those issues with other representatives of Central European countries and with the support of our most important global ally: the United States, and more specifically the United States’ conservatives. In this way we can support the creation of a Central European and Intermarium identity, which we also want to develop within the European Union.
Ferenc Almássy: This brings us to the next question. You are the head of an NGO specialising in legal issues, including at the European level, and you are a lawyer yourself. From your point of view as a legal expert, how do you see the ongoing conflict between Brussels’ institutions and Poland?
Jerzy Kwaśniewski: This conflict is only about power and influence over the EU institutions and the European project. It is a fight between the EU’s new members and the old ones who want to subordinate them, weaponising their principles and applying a double-standard approach. These double standards are something that is very openly invoked in EU documents and in documents the EU institutions often refer to, like those of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. When we were observing elections in Hungary at the beginning of April, there were some parts of the Venice Commission’s documents that were raised which mention the “new democracies” as democracies that need stricter administrative measures, whereas old democracies like France and Belgium can have their elections organized entirely by the government. This is just one of many examples of this double-standard approach.
The debate about the rule of law is of course the most important issue, as the principles that define the rule of law have never been written out with the consent of the states. There is no source of international law that defines the rule of law, and this should not be defined only with the consent of a few countries in Western Europe. This is all the truer given that they follow different practices even among themselves when it comes to their public administrations, their judiciaries, their legislative power, and their general governance. Besides, one of their tools when weaponising principles is being picky with the principles that are enshrined in the European treaties. In Berlin, Paris, and Brussels nobody invokes one of the treaties’ most important principles: respect for the member states’ constitutional identities. When a country joins the EU, its constitutional identity becomes part of our European identity and should be protected as per the treaties. Thus, even if we differ on the judiciary or on the protection of the family, for example, we should not try to impose our own model on our friends. In short, their model should not be imposed on us.
Ferenc Almássy: What exactly is the issue in this conflict over the Polish judicial reform?
Jerzy Kwaśniewski: Its most important element concerns the way judges are elected to the country’s judicial council. Before the reform, the judges sitting on our national judicial council, the KRS, were elected by other judges. Since the reform, the judges sitting on the KRS are now elected from among judges by the parliament. This is in line with our constitution, which leaves it to the legislator to decide how those judges are elected. This is also very much in line with the practices of different European countries, and it still allows the judges to decide for themselves who to promote to the judiciary’s top positions.
The second big controversy is about the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber. For many years after the fall of Communism in Poland, the lack of effective disciplinary proceedings against judges was a very serious issue. This is why a Disciplinary Chamber was finally created at the Supreme Court and filled with new judges. It is absolutely in line with the principles of the division of powers and the rule of law. The Polish government is now fixing its own reform only because of pressure from the EU and the Ukrainian crisis, as in fact there is nothing wrong with this reform in the light of the rule of law. Furthermore, it was a crucial point in the current parliamentary majority’s electoral programme when they asked for the people’s votes, so this reform has also obtained the voters’ support.
Even before the conservatives came to power, it was the judges themselves – the liberal ones – who raised this issue of a lack of disciplinary proceedings. The fact that this was an issue was acknowledged by all the political parties and all the experts. Today, Poland has to back down in order to be granted access to the EU recovery funds because of the Ukrainian crisis and because of additional budget spending for the refugees.
Ferenc Almássy: Poland is indeed by far the country that has taken in the largest number of refugees from Ukraine. As of today, we are talking about some three million people welcomed by a country of 38 million, which is quite huge. The Polish government has also taken some generous measures, such as entitling Ukrainian mothers who have found shelter in Poland to benefit from its “500+” child allowance programme. What could be the consequences for Poland of such a crisis, which might very well last for some time?
Jerzy Kwaśniewski: The first point is that the Polish government is doing much more than it is being asked to do under the international law on refugee status as well as by the Polish constitution. It grants full and equal rights to those who have fled the war, including in terms of their access to the Polish welfare state. The second point, which is also very important, is that there is no significant political opposition to this policy. There is a common will to provide full support for the Ukrainian state and to the Ukrainians in Poland.
Ferenc Almássy: Isn’t there criticism of these generous policies coming from Konfederacja – that is, the right-wing opposition?
Jerzy Kwaśniewski: Yes, they did express some delicate criticisms, but you have to remember that they have the support of less than 10% of the electorate, and all the other political factions support these decisions. Opinion polls also show strong support among the general public. There is of course the question of the duration of these measures and of how the spending should be controlled in order to prevent abuse, in particular in the case of child allowances – in other words, the 500-zloty monthly payment for each child – as there now are some 700,000 Ukrainian children registered in Poland, which means this is very costly. But it is also perceived as an investment in our relations. Both the Polish government and the public believe that we are experiencing some of the most important changes on the national-emotional level between Ukraine and Poland. After the war, the level of cooperation between our two nations will be completely different from what it was before. I was in Kyiv two weeks before the Russian attack, as we were opening our Ukrainian branch there. We had meetings with representatives of those local governments who had signed our Charter of Family Rights. Even then, they were voicing very positive feelings and a will to cooperate with Polish local governments. The situation has changed in the last few years, even though we still have some very important historical issues, especially concerning the genocide in Volhynia, where tens of thousands of Polish civilians were murdered by Ukrainian nationalists during the Second World War. Those issues need to be addressed and we should not be silent about them. With the general feeling and atmosphere between the two nations being much better, however, these issues will soon be addressed, I believe.
From the geopolitical point of view, what matters most is to keep Russia as far as possible from Poland’s borders, and this is a doctrine that has been shared by all Polish political factions for years. It was actually the case with Marshall Pilsudski and even during the previous centuries. The existence of Ukraine has always been viewed by Poland as the best guarantee for secure borders.