As Germany and Spain prove, history – with all its wounds – is not over | Natalie Nougayrède | Opinion

History is back in Europe. The Catalan referendum and the German election illustrate this spectacularly. The scale of the far-right vote in what was once East Germany and Catalonia’s apparent march towards independence may look like they happened on separate planets – to be sure, they are fuelled by different political beliefs – but they both have to do with pent-up frustrations. Citizens who feel that they have been insulted have gone to the ballot box, and in some cases taken to the streets, to protest. In both situations there is a vivid historical backdrop, with memories of Europe’s 20th-century nightmares playing an important role: in Catalonia, the fight against fascism and Franco; in the east of Germany, the experiences of Nazism and Soviet communism.

In Leipzig and the nearby small town of Grimma, I was told about how citizens felt their self-esteem had been trampled on. German reunification has not led to a shared sense of community. Rather, it’s compared to colonisation: “westerners” took over everything – regional administrations, courts, education and the economy. Everything about life in the Communist state – the way people dressed, what they ate, what they learned in school, how they decorated their homes, what they watched on TV – became an object of scorn and ridicule. It’s not that life isn’t better now: of course it is. There is freedom. And living standards have improved immensely. But many eastern Germans feel their identity has somehow been negated, as if they were being asked to forget about it.

Speaking with Catalan friends in recent days, I heard similar qualms: “We were waiting for a sign that our voice would be heard, but as the years passed nothing was changing” … “Our cultural difference isn’t being acknowledged as it should be”: these were common sentiments, even from people not altogether enthusiastic about breaking away from Spain.

Identity isn’t just about power, rights and institutions. Former East Germans aren’t asking for secession, nor a special status. Catalonia is deeply divided on the question of independence. Nor can identity be boiled down to purely economic factors – wages, income, jobs, social class. It’s true that regions covering the former East Germany have higher unemployment (7.1%) than western ones (5.1%), but the malaise reflected in the east German far-right vote went beyond material circumstances. Catalonia’s economy has thrived in recent decades – that hasn’t prevented protests.

A generation has passed since German reunification, in 1990; and Spain joined the European club in 1986. It’s hard to exaggerate the benefits. Anyone who visits Leipzig, with its beautifully restored facades and the amazing modern architecture of its university, will struggle to spot traces of the bleakness and poverty that once characterised eastern Europe.

Catalonia’s transformation has also been stunning. I have spent many summers in the Pyrenees, regularly crossing into Spain from France. And over the years I have seen roads improved, hotels built, and prosperity spread – a region shedding the drabness left by the Franco years. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics celebrated that success.

Yet these accomplishments don’t necessarily translate into people’s minds. The European project is built on the idea that economic ties and social improvement bring people together and help them overcome the traumas of history. In recent years, much has been said about how nationalism, populism and anti-establishment sentiment are a response to globalisation and inequality. Less has been said about a more specifically European ingredient: the shadow cast by 20th-century traumas born of war and totalitarianism, and the difficulty – which still persists – of dealing with that legacy.

It is this history that sets continental Europe’s populist convulsions apart from the forces that have driven Brexit and Trump. Britain and the United States never experienced life under fascism, or behind a version of the iron curtain. Across Europe, populism and extremism, whether of left or right, plunges its roots into 20th century political battles and references. Catalan nationalism, I think, is different from Scottish nationalism in this way also: it can quickly reignite memories of oppression that are still vivid within families – stories of life and death, in one’s own country.

When crowds in Barcelona start singing old songs of resistance against the Franco regime, history is back. It is also back when 22.5% of voters in the former East Germany (twice as many as in the western part of the country) cast their ballots for a party – Alternative für Deutschland – whose platform amounts to a rejection of everything Germany’s western-built democracy has stood for.

Last month’s German election was a clear demonstration that the Wall has survived in people’s minds. Germany and Spain today find themselves confronted by ghosts of the past – not just to do with problems related to social cohesion and integration, or how to preserve a constitutional order. Yes, politicians exploit polarisation. But it is striking to see how, over a generation after democracy was anchored in countries that had experienced the worse of the 20th century, so many citizens feel that so much has still been left unaddressed.

Isaiah Berlin once wrote that nationalism feeds on a sense of wounded pride and humiliation. As Europe tries to sort itself out and prepare for the future – including through grassroots “democratic conventions” due next year across the continent – it would do well to pay closer attention to those wounds left by history. We thought that they had healed – but they really haven’t.

Natalie Nougayrède is a Guardian columnist

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The Guardian view on Catalonia’s referendum: the Spanish state has lost | Editorial | Opinion

Spain is in crisis, and its prime minister appears to be in denial. The run-up to Sunday’s referendum on independence for Catalonia made it clear that the country was in trouble. But neither those arranging it nor those rejecting it can fully have anticipated the scenes at polling stations: police in riot gear beating peaceful protesters with batons, dragging voters out by the hair or throwing them down stairs, firing rubber bullets to disperse crowds – even striking at Catalan firefighters and jostling with Catalan police.

The immediate result of the violence was hundreds of casualties by mid-afternoon, according to Catalan authorities, and at least 11 wounded officers, according to the central government. The wider effect is the shock expressed well beyond Catalonia, and Spain. The outcome is almost certain to be that some of the Catalans indifferent or opposed to secession – until now, at least, the majority – are pushed into the arms of the cause. Who wants to be ruled by a state like this, many are asking.

Yet Mariano Rajoy’s response, in his address to the nation, was simple: there was no referendum and no problem – police acted with “firmness and serenity”. The responsibility for all that had happened lay with the Catalonian government. Spain is paying for his determination to stop the illegal vote by the bluntest means and at all costs. His latest remarks are only likely to inflame matters.

Catalan nationalists owe him much of their success in recent years. The Spanish financial crisis fuelled a surge in the independence movement, leaving many in the wealthy region feeling they were paying more than their fair share. But the shift in the public mood was spurred on when the constitutional court trimmed back a charter increasing the region’s powers – and already approved by the Spanish parliament – after a challenge by Mr Rajoy’s People’s party.

Even so, support for independence peaked in 2013, at an estimated 49%. Catalan nationalists, who hold only a wafer-thin majority in the regional parliament, pushed the legislation for Sunday’s vote through it against considerable opposition; Catalans who wanted to remain in Spain were unlikely to vote. The Spanish constitutional court ruled it illegal and called for it to be halted. But Mr Rajoy’s heavy-handed response furthered the cause of secessionists again.

The central government seized 10m ballot papers; arrested key officials; dismantled the technology to connect voting stations, tally votes and vote online; blocked and removed voters from polling stations; and confiscated ballot boxes. Catalan officials told voters to print off ballot papers at home and said they could vote wherever they wanted. Whatever they may claim, the results are neither legally nor morally binding: whatever votes are tallied cannot truly represent Catalonia’s wishes. Between them, the two sides have produced both a vote that is hugely contentious and a result that is meaningless.

The prime minister’s address, made as condemnations of violence arrived from Jeremy Corbyn, the Belgian prime minister and the EU’s Guy Verhofstadt – though most member states sought to stay out of the affair – is likely to fuel nationalists’ accusations of authoritarianism and complaints about the suppression of the Catalan will.

But if Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was right to say that the Spanish state had “lost much more than what it had already lost”, his assertion that Catalonia had won is at best half true. Most Catalans wished both for a referendum and to remain in a united country. They have been ill-served by both the state and the independence movement. Mr Verhofstadt urged de-escalation, a negotiated solution bringing in all parties – including the opposition in Catalonia – and respect for Spain’s constitutional and legal order. He is right. Finding a way out of this mess will require a willingness to listen, to Catalans most of all.

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Opinion divided by the Catalan referendum | Letters | World news

One cannot fail to have been moved by the scenes of violence in Catalonia, as Spanish forces attacked unarmed voters (Hundreds hurt as Catalonia poll descends into violence, 2 October). Whatever the view on Catalonia’s right to hold such a vote or not, the response by the Spanish national government was brutal and excessive. The sight of people being dragged from polling stations by baton-wielding police and disabled people being attacked in wheelchairs has no place in a modern western democracy.

What is deeply disappointing is the muted response from the international community, which – bar a few exceptions such as Angela Merkel, the Belgian prime minister Charles Michel and Nicola Sturgeon – has been largely silent. While the EU may argue that this is an internal situation, in the past it has been willing to act in such matters. In 2000, for example, it imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria when Jörg Haider’s extreme rightwing Austrian Freedom Party entered the government.

The Tory government is so morally bankrupt that little more was to be expected than the pathetic response from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when it referred to Spain as a “close ally and a good friend, whose strength and unity matters to us”. There was no condemnation of the violence.

One suspects that if there was any doubt previously over Catalonia’s desire for independence, the actions of the Spanish state have pushed it well and truly down this road.
Alex Orr
Edinburgh

Whatever the merits or otherwise of Catalan independence, Sunday’s referendum was unquestionably illegal, unconstitutional and illegitimate by every relevant national, European and international standard. The Spanish state had no alternative, therefore, but to suppress it using whatever force was reasonably necessary and proportionate. It is debatable whether police conduct always met this standard. But attempting to prevent the poll was not itself anti-democratic or a violation of human rights. Nor, given the radically different contexts and in spite of the superficial similarities, was it “Francoist”. Neither Spain nor the rest of Europe can afford to endorse attempts at secession on such terms.
Professor Steven Greer and Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells
University of Bristol Law School

I am a Spanish national who relocated to Spain after living in Northern Ireland for 13 years, which puts into perspective the problems in Catalonia.

Politics aside – which are well covered in all the media – my experience meeting Catalan people abroad was shockingly negative during my time abroad. Most young Catalans refused to mix with the Spanish for the simple reason that we were born in Seville or Madrid. Spaniards abroad are seen by Catalan people as “the enemy”. This would have not happened among people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation during the Franco years.

I find it strange that the views of Catalans who do not support independence and the referendum are nowhere to be seen in the international papers. But they hardly feature in the Spanish media either. It appears that they are a minority there, and they are afraid to lose jobs and be ostracised by their neighbours.

It was only in the last few days that that minority have spoken up. I have heard accounts of a secondary school student who reported that school staff asked students to raise their hands if their families were going to vote. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if teachers asked students if their families would support a Sinn Féin-orchestrated referendum about joining the Republic of Ireland. It would be called sectarianism.

I have not read in the international press that on Sunday people in Catalonia could vote as many times as they wanted as reported by, for example, El País. I have not read either that the advice on the day of the referendum was to bring children and form big queues for the press to photograph, or that their regional police had instructions to watch from a distance.

Northern Ireland got over the hatred and violence cycle. The mantra there is “we don’t want to go back to that”. They have accepted that there are two sides; no winners and that the only way forward is together. Unfortunately, Spain and Catalonia lack the kind of politicians and the international support that made peace and prosperity possible in Northern Ireland.
Elena Tavera
La Línea, Cadiz, Spain

Anyone watching, in horror as I did, the videos of the treatment of voters in Catalonia can see that the police did not act with “firmness and serenity” as Spain’s prime minister said, but with brutal force. They literally seized voters and threw them on to the streets, in some cases even hurling them down steps. One poor old man was thrown down with his dog, and his fears for the animal are visible. This would have been bad in a riot, but as a government attempt to stop voting it was disgusting. Spain should be hanging its head in shame.
Sara Neill
Tunbridge Wells, Kent

The contrasts between the Catalan and Iraqi Kurdish independence referendums are unsettling. Catalonia is divided with as many people opposed to its separation from Spain as in support of it. Though Catalan as a language is distinct from Castilian Spanish, there is no great cultural or ethnic divide.

The Spanish government sought legally, if harshly, to disrupt and undermine the vote. “No” voters largely stayed at home. And yet the Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont claims a mandate to unilaterally declare independence.

By contrast, support for independence among Iraqi Kurds is rock solid, as it would be among the Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iran, if they were ever to be asked. Also, there are deep ethnic and linguistic differences between the Kurds and their Arab and Turkish neighbours.

So the Catalan nationalists on limited support and an illegitimate referendum are throwing Spain and the EU into crisis and may soon achieve independence, while the Kurds, the victims of repeated genocidal injustice, will just have to wait.

It is time we stopped indulging Catalan, Scottish and other micro-nationalisms unsupported by any substantial ethnic difference, where demagogic politicians seek to split successful countries for personal glory and self-advancement.
Otto Inglis
Edinburgh

Surely the most sensible approach for Catalan separatists is to campaign for a change in the law before embarking on the referendum. After all, they must have known that the central government would declare the vote illegal. That means that whatever the outcome, no further legal action can be taken towards independence. It will be interesting to see what the Catalan government proposes. Will it declare independence? If not then what has all this posturing been about?
Roy Hogg
West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire

If Catalonia, like Scotland, wants to separate from its parent state then, instead of blaming the Spanish government for mishandling the current crisis (Editorial, 2 October), shouldn’t you be seeking the root cause of the problem in the paradoxical nature of the EU?

The EU unites nations but, at the same time, it also carries within an incentive for break-up. Ambitious politicians belonging to various composites that make up the EU would always ask: why share your sovereignty with your national capitals and remain forever a “bridesmaid” when you have the option of becoming a “bride” by sharing your sovereignty with Brussels?

The EU – its claim to unity notwithstanding – is seen by many as a potential wrecker of a “marriage of convenience” between Europe’s composite states. Perhaps, it is time the EU dealt with the problem and introduced a law, barring seceding states from ever becoming a member.
Randhir Singh Bains
Gants Hill, Essex

I am extremely disappointed by the coverage the British media has given to the Catalan so-called referendum, and by the reaction of many public figures in the UK. The constitutional tribunal of Catalonia, that is to say, the judiciary rather than the government, declared the vote as illegal and in contravention of the rule of law in Spain. The police therefore had no choice but to act. What happened in Catalonia on Sunday was the security forces policing a crime, and not the police preventing a vote and removing ballots, as you have presented it. It is critical to democracy that the rule of law is upheld and that the right to demonstrate, protest and exercise legal rights, which Catalan citizens have always had, is not confused with the right to break the law, which no citizen, in any democratic country, has.
Santiago Dominguez
Hereford

I will not talk about politics, nor about laws but I will talk about human rights. I just ask that for a moment let us all reflect on what happened. I am sure that no member of the Spanish government party will be able to sleep with a calm conscience for the rest of their lives. There is no doubt that political responsibility is shared by the Catalan and Spanish governments and probably a referendum five years ago would have left a high “no” independence result as a clear winner. But the assault on human rights of the Catalan people that we have seen is the sole responsibility of the Spanish government. I can only say that after what we have seen, Catalonia is increasingly far from Spain. We will never forget this.
Vicente Sorribes
Barcelona

The superstar footballers of FC Barcelona, Messi, Suárez et al, playing against Las Palmas in an empty, huge, Camp Nou was an oddly appropriate protest against the violent crackdown on the Catalan independence vote by the Spanish government (Lionel Messi helps Barcelona extend perfect start at empty Camp Nou”, 1 October). It made for a strangely evocative and ghost-like symbol of the authoritarian and paranoid actions by the government of Mariano Rajoy.
Joe McCarthy
Dublin, Ireland

I am dismayed by the May government’s statement of reaction to developments surrounding the Catalan referendum. I have written to both the prime minister and the foreign secretary to express our disappointment.

Gibraltar looks on with great trepidation under these circumstances, witnessing no steadfast, bulldog defence of freedom and democracy in government’s official statement on this important and signal occasion, and contrasting this (for veracity’s sake) with the oft-repeated British government’s “reassurances” to the people of The Rock contained in the preamble to the Gibraltar constitution.

I therefore write to express a deep sense of disconcert, an expression of what has been an accumulated sense of disquiet represented to us over time following a years-long failure to demonstrate strong will and defence of our British Gibraltarian sovereign waters in the face of continuous and aggressive Spanish incursions.
Felix Alvarez
Chairman of Gibraltar’s Human & Civil Rights organisation (“Equality Rights Group”)

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Poland’s president to veto controversial laws amid protests | World news

Poland’s president appears to have bowed to the pressure of nationwide protests by announcing he will veto controversial judicial reforms that would wipe out the supreme court’s independence and allow the justice ministry to appoint judges.

Andrzej Duda’s surprise announcement was interpreted as a rare reprimand of the ruling Law and Justice party, (PiS) with whom he normally has a close relationship.

Commentators were shocked at the move, interpreting it as a major setback for PiS, which has made a big issue out of controlling Poland’s independent institutions, particularly the judiciary, since it came into power in 2015, and hailing it as a victory for demonstrators.

Duda, in a televised address, said: “These laws must be amended.” He said his rejection of the proposed bills would be criticised “probably by both sides of the political scene”, but that they “would not strengthen the sense of justice in society”.

The attempt by Poland’s Law and Justice party to take control of the judicial system should be seen as part of a wider campaign to dismantle democratic checks and balances on the government’s actions, from its takeover of state media to its capture of the country’s constitutional tribunal.

Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS’s leader, has developed a theory known in Poland as ‘impossibilism’, the idea that no serious reform of Polish society and institutions is possible due to these checks and balances, and what he describes as the vested interests of liberal elites and foreigners intent on exploiting the country.

The proposed measures he said he would veto included one to remove all judges of the supreme court, except those chosen by the justice minister, and another under which parliament would have been given the authority to appoint members of the National Council of the Judiciary.

Explaining that his decision had resulted from lengthy consultations he had held with legal and other experts over the weekend, he said: “I have decided to send back to parliament – in which case to veto – the law on the supreme court, as well as the law on the National Council of the Judiciary.”

His declaration followed eight days of demonstrations across the country, in which hundreds of thousands of Poles have taken to the streets in the capital, Warsaw, as well as hundreds of other towns and cities, and held vigils in front of courthouses.

Protesters marched by candlelight again on Sunday night, ahead of the president’s much anticipated decision, and a day after the Polish senate had followed the lower house of parliament and voted for the reforms on Saturday.

Under banners emblazoned with slogans such as “Free courts” and “Freedom, equality, democracy”, demonstrators pleaded with Duda – himself a lawyer – to reject the laws, claiming they marked a shift towards authoritarian rule.

Investors’ interpretation of Duda’s announcement as having stalled a constitutional crisis caused the Polish currency, the zloty, to rise against the euro.

The proposals had also set Poland on a collision course with the European commission, which had threatened to stop Poland’s voting rights if it introduced them. Donald Tusk, the European council president and a former Polish prime minister, had warned of a “black scenario that could ultimately lead to the marginalisation of Poland in Europe”.

There has also been criticism from Washington, with the US state department voicing its concerns. When President Trump visited Warsaw earlier this month he praised Poland’s leaders for their patriotism but did not mention the judicial reforms.

The legal amendments had their first parliamentary hearing on 18 July and were adopted by the lower house, followed by the upper house four days later. The only procedure preventing them from entering the statute books was the presidential signature.

Duda’s declaration marks the first time that he has publicly split with Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of PiS. Since his inauguration, Duda has been seen as something of a Kaczyński puppet from whom he effectively takes orders, leading to much mockery of him. Some commentators are sceptical whether his apparent assertion of his authority is authentic, or merely an attempt to take the edge off the protests. Although he insisted on Monday that political interference in the judiciary should not be up for discussion, some predict Duda will propose new conditions that do little to address the main concerns about the legislation and they fear he will fail to veto a third bill affecting the independence of regional and local courts.

Andrzej Duda holds a press conference in the presidential palace in Warsaw.



Andrzej Duda holds a press conference in the presidential palace in Warsaw. Photograph: Paweł Supernak/EPA

Katarzyna Lubnauer, head of the parliamentary caucus of the opposition party Nowoczesna, welcomed the veto. “What we had wasn’t a reform, but appropriation of the courts,” she said. “I congratulate all Poles, this is really a great success.”

Human rights organisations welcomed the president’s veto but urged vigilance. “With this decision President Duda has pulled Poland back from the brink of all-out assault on the rule of law,” said Gauri Van Gulik, the deputy Europe director at Amnesty International. “These reforms would have brought the justice system fully under the heel of the government, removing judicial independence and jeopardising fair trial rights in Poland,” he added.

Van Gulik said the demonstrations had helped to bring about the veto, which was a “tribute to the power of public protest”, adding: “It is partly thanks to people power that this alarming scenario has been averted.”

But opponents of the law urged Duda to go ahead and also veto the third bill, which would give the government the power to appoint the heads of common courts.

Hundreds of participants of the protest rallies face trial in the courts, having refused to pay fines for barricading the streets or penetrating police barriers.

Kaczyński’s government has staunchly defended the law changes, calling them vital in the fight against corruption and necessary to help make the judicial system more efficient. It has accused opponents of the moves of being representatives of the elite trying to protect their privileged status.

Among the experts Duda said he had consulted were lawyers, sociologists, historians, philosophers and anti-communist dissidents.

The person who had guided him most, he said, was Zofia Romaszewska, a prominent campaigner of the 1970s and 80s, who he said had told him: “Mr President, I lived in a state where the prosecutor general had an unbelievably powerful position and could practically do anything. I would not like to go back to such a state.”

Among those to praise Duda was Lech Wałęsa, the former president and erstwhile shipworker and leader of the Polish labour union Solidarność, which helped bring down communism across Europe. Wałęsa called his decision “difficult and courageous”, saying it showed that Duda “begins to feel like a president”. But he urged Poles to continue their protests to force Duda to also reject the third bill.

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Why suspicion remains over Polish president’s veto of contentious laws | World news

The Polish president Andrzej Duda’s decision to yield to street protests and veto two of three bills that threatened to give the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) control of the country’s judicial system was as surprising as it was dramatic.

A former PiS MEP and relative unknown before his election to the presidency in 2015, Duda, as the country’s head of state, is nominally above party politics. In practice, however, he has played an instrumental role in his former party’s hostile takeover of public media outlets and the country’s highest constitutional court. Critics have accused him of violating his oath to uphold the Polish constitution on innumerable occasions.

The protesters focused their attention squarely on Duda and his power of veto and – for now – they have succeeded. What comes next is less clear and will depend on the rationale behind the president’s decision.

The first possibility is that the vetoes signal a wholesale climbdown on behalf of the government: the abandonment of its plan to seize effective control of judicial appointments.

Optimistic observers cite the example of the so-called Black Protest in October against a proposed blanket ban on abortion, when hundreds of thousands of protesters – predominantly women wearing black – took to the streets and forced a government volte-face.

Although the government did not initiate the abortion ban, which was proposed by hardline conservative groups, PiS MPs had waved it through the early stages of the legislative process, sparking a furious reaction they had clearly not expected.

It is a conventional wisdom that as an authoritarian-minded party, anger on the streets is the only kind of opposition PiS respects or understands. The argument goes that every now and again the party will go too far, trigger public anger, and then retreat to lick its wounds.

The second possibility is that Duda’s vetoes mark only a tactical retreat. The president has not rejected the government’s proposals outright. Instead, he has spoken of the need to “repair” them so that public faith is restored.

Duda or the government could propose a new set of proposals amounting to token concessions that do little to address the fundamental concern of the protesters: that the independence of the judiciary is under threat.

PiS may be hoping it can take the wind out of the protesters’ sails, portraying itself as the reasonable party to the dispute and the protesters as acting in bad faith when they inevitably reject the government’s “generous” concessions.

Advocates of this interpretation note Duda threatened last week to veto the legislation unless the government agreed to a series of concessions. Initial excitement among the protesters soon faded, however, as it became clear his conditions did nothing to address the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the changes. Rather than asserting his independence and defending the rule of law, Duda appeared to be coordinating his response with the government so as to facilitate the legislation’s eventual enactment.

The third possibility is that after two years in office, Duda has finally decided to define himself in opposition to his former party.

Long ridiculed for his apparent dependence upon and subservience to the PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, Duda may have decided that a close association with the Law and Justice project will do his re-election prospects more harm than good.

Although there is little reason to believe that is the case, were Duda to split from his mentor and patron it could be the first act of a revolution within the ruling party, leading to a split and its eventual downfall.

But as they wait for Duda and the government to make its next move, excitement among the protesters about the veto is giving way to a troubling question: why, in 2017, do they still need to fight so hard for something as basic as the right to a fair trial.

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The Guardian view on Poland’s courts: people power and a glimmer of hope | Editorial | Opinion

People power has historically been a powerful force in Poland. The energy and singular determination of the 1980s grassroots Solidarity movement played a key role in ending Soviet-imposed dictatorship in central Europe. Strikes and demonstrations brought down tyranny through a peaceful transition. Recalling this is important today, as a polarised country struggles with threats to democracy levelled not from the outside but from within. Since 2015, an elected populist and nationalist government with a deep authoritarian streak has transformed Poland into a quasi-pariah in the European club, as well as a political battlefield.

This week, after eight days of nationwide street protests, the president, Andrzej Duda, surprised many by appearing to break ranks with the ruling party over its intention to place the judiciary fully under its control. Mr Duda vetoed two key pieces of legislation aimed at wiping out the independence of the supreme court and giving parliament control over the body that hires judges. His motives remain a matter of speculation. The bills, he explained, “would not strengthen the sense of justice in society”. Mr Duda had up until then sided with every government move to curtail independent institutions. Was this a genuine U-turn, or a tactical retreat designed to take the edge off the protests? His decision was welcome, but far from sufficient; he signed a third bill allowing political control over the heads of courts. The government already has control of the constitutional court. Many fear that the other legislation will return in only marginally amended form.

Still, it is unlikely that any reversal would have occurred without the perseverance of large crowds who held candlelit vigils and waved banners with slogans such as “freedom, equality, democracy”. Doubts among conservatives played a part too, as did European pressures, with Brussels officials warning that the assault on the courts might lead to sanctions. The EU will reportedly underline that message on Wednesday, telling Warsaw there will be consequences if it begins firing judges en masse. That is all the more important given that Donald Trump’s recent visit, with his praise for the government and its ultraconservative views, is likely to have emboldened the ruling party’s worst instincts.

Poland is deeply divided. Mr Duda’s vetoes have offered protesters a glimmer of hope; but his ratification of the third bill is a step backwards for the country. Pressure must be resolutely maintained.

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Far-right activists detained at UK border before Britain First rally | World news

Prominent far-right activists from Europe who were planning to attend an anti-Muslim rally in Birmingham have been detained at airports hours before they were due to speak.

Jacek Międlar, 28, an antisemitic priest, and his fellow activist Piotr Rybak were among three Polish nationals stopped on Saturday morning, according to Polish media and social media posts. They were due to speak at the rally held by far-right group Britain First.

At around the same time, the Dutch national Edwin Wagensveld, who is the head of his country’s branch of the Islamophobic movement Pegida, was held at Birmingham airport, Britain First said.

The detentions follow three terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. Muslims were targeted in Finsbury Park, north London, last week, in an attack during which one man was killed and dozens were injured.

Britain First describes itself as “committed to maintaining and strengthening Christianity as the foundation of our society and culture”, and repeatedly tells its followers about a coming “civil war” with Islam.

Prominent figures in the organisation have claimed that the detentions by border authorities are illegal. The deputy leader of Britain First, Jayda Fransen, told IBTimes UK: “They have not committed any crime, it’s completely ridiculous.”

Anti-racism campaigners said Międlar’s scheduled appearance was further proof of the growing links between British extremists and nationalists abroad.

Described as a “fanatical hate preacher” by campaigners in Poland, he attacks his critics as leftists opposed to Polish patriotism.

Międlar, who is from Wrocław in western Poland, has cultivated a sizeable following in his country. His local Catholic church has suspended him for the content of his nationalist sermons, but he has addressed tens of thousands of people at rightwing rallies.

His speeches target the political left, “Islamic aggression” and immigration. They often invoke the “warriors of great Poland” and are accompanied by chants of “God, honour, fatherland”.

Międlar was accused last year of calling Jews a “cancer” that had “swept Poland” during an address to a rally in Białystok.

Prosecutors later absolved him of alleged hate-speech offences. He was detained earlier this year and returned home after trying to enter the UK for another Britain First rally in Telford.

Rybak was indicted for inciting hatred last year after burning an effigy of an orthodox Jew during a protest against Muslim immigration.

During the event, he was heard saying: “Our duty and the duty of the newly elected government … [is to say] we will not bring a single Muslim into Poland. Poland is for Poles”. He then set fire to the effigy, which featured an EU flag.

Wagensveld was arrested last year for failing to take off a child’s hat shaped like a pig while protesting against immigrant centres that were supposed to house refugees.

Anti-racism campaigners have said Miedlar and his supporters could radicalise some of the 830,000 Poles living in the UK and called on British authorities to intervene before his arrival.

Rafał Pankowski from the Never Again group in Poland said the far right had been trying to mobilise members of the Polish community in the UK against their Muslim neighbours.

“Jacek Miedlar and Piotr Rybak are well-known as extreme hate-mongers. They intended to promote their hateful message to the audiences in the UK. Unfortunately, there is a big surge in far-right nationalist activity among the UK Poles this year,” he said.

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