Poland passes controversial bills, straining ties with EU, US and Israel

The Polish government is moving forward on controversial legislation that is drawing sharp criticism from European, American and Israeli officials, who are raising concern over Poland’s commitment to core democratic values and norms and warning of its future in international alliances.

The two pieces of separate legislation, dealing with media freedom and the rights of Holocaust survivors, proceeded through the early stages of passage in Poland’s parliament on Wednesday.

One bill would prevent former property owners, including Holocaust survivors and their descendants, from seeking compensation for property wrongfully confiscated by the country’s Communist-era government, which ended in 1989.

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The second bill is aimed at forcing foreign companies to sell their stakes in Polish media, criticized as targeting the U.S.-owned Discovery Inc. and forcing it to sell its ownership of Poland’s largest and most popular private television network, TVN.

Věra Jourová, the vice president for values and transparency with the European Commission, a political body of the European Union, issued a statement Thursday saying the Polish media law “sends a negative signal.”

“Media pluralism and diversity of opinions are what strong democracies welcome, not fight against,” she tweeted. “The draft Polish broadcasting law sends a negative signal. ... We need a #MediaFreedomAct in the whole EU to uphold media freedom and support the rule of law.”

Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenFive things to watch as Biden heads to the UN Poll: Biden, Trump statistically tied in favorability Majority of voters disapprove of execution of Afghanistan withdrawal: poll MORE, who is the child of Holocaust survivors, issued a statement Wednesday expressing deep concern of both pieces of legislation and warned Poland runs the risk of isolating itself among Western democracies.

“Poland is an important NATO Ally that understands the Transatlantic Alliance is based on mutual commitments to shared democratic values and prosperity,” the secretary said in a statement.

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“These pieces of legislation run counter to the principles and values for which modern, democratic nations stand. We urge the government of Poland to demonstrate its commitment to these shared principles not only in words, but also in deeds.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid responded on Twitter to Blinken's statements, writing in Hebrew: “Intensive discussions are currently taking place with the U.S. administration on ways to respond to Polish legislation bordering on Holocaust denial. It will not pass in silence, the Poles cannot continue to harm the memory of those who perished.”

American lawmakers had earlier raised concern over the legislation targeting restitution for Holocaust victims and survivors. A group of bipartisan lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThis week: Democrats face mounting headaches Budget chairman: Debt ceiling fight 'a ridiculous position to be in' Five questions and answers about the debt ceiling fight MORE (D-Md.), sent a letter Tuesday to the Speaker of Poland’s lower house of parliament, called the Sejm, urging the legislation be dropped. 

“Property restitution and justice for Holocaust victims and survivors is a broadly supported priority for the United States government,” the lawmakers wrote. “We therefore implore you to act boldly to use every tool available to you to stop the advancement of the proposed legislation.”

The latest legislative moves reflect a growing trend in Poland that advocates warn showcase a dangerous rolling back of democratic progress since the country transitioned from Communist rule in 1989.

Freedom House, the nonprofit research and advocacy organization focused on democracy, political freedom and human rights, rates Poland as “free” but has raised concern over the ruling populist and socially conservative Law and Justice Party.

“The quality of democratic governance in Poland continued to deteriorate in 2019, marking the fourth consecutive year of decline in the country and its lowest score in Nations in Transit,” Freedom House wrote in its 2020 “Nations in Transit” report. “The most negatively affected areas were the judiciary, local democratic governance, and the pluralism of civil society.”