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The Polish people have made their wishes clear: protect democracy, forests and EU membership

14 November 2023

The Polish people have made their wishes clear: protect democracy, forests and EU membership

After Poland’s 15 October 2023 vote, change is underway. Augustyn Mikos, forest campaigner with Polish association Workshop for All Beings, offers insight into the new political landscape, and what it means for forests.

“Crucially, the voter turnout that gave a majority to an opposition coalition was the highest in Polish history, 75 per cent. People saw that we were at a crucial moment to avert a semi-authoritarian system. Mobilisation of civil society was also particularly strong. 

The promises: Usually discussions focus on subjects such as retirement age and taxes, but this time, the environment and forests moved up the agenda. We drew up a 10-point forest manifesto, and 250 different groups signed, including 40 Members of Parliament (MPs). Politicians attended our forest debate and said concrete things. Now, the government will be composed of free blocs who have made specific promises regarding forests - some of which are very ambitious.

It seems likely that Poland’s forests will be released from over-exploitation. Led by Civic Platform, Donald Tusk’s party, some of whom are members of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) the just-published coalition agreement promises to exclude 20 per cent of Poland’s most valuable forests from active forest management (including key areas like Białowieża Forest, the Carpathians, and forests near agglomerations). In addition, the export of unprocessed wood will be limited; meaning it can now primarily serve Polish entrepreneurs.

The agreement also announces better public control over forest management; 80 per cent of Poland’s forests are public and 75 per cent are state-managed, so democratising forest supervision is critical. Under the previous Law and Justice (PiS) government, Polish forest management became increasingly politicised and authoritarian. This sparked a tug-of-war with the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) (C-441/17, C-432/21), which has repeatedly condemned Poland’s violations of obligations under EU Birds and Habitats directives, and its lack of public participation in forest management (FW 287). But PiS representatives dismissed the CJEU rulings, and they have still not been implemented.

Additional promises include more protected areas, and more funding for forest conservation. Importantly, the coalition has announced that it will introduce a ban on burning wood in the commercial energy sector – a phenomenal success.

Polish people have given an important mandate to this coalition; what they do with it will be very important.

Will it be possible to implement change?

The Government will be a democratic coalition, but without the three-fifths majority needed to overturn a presidential veto. President Andrzej Duda, of the PiS, has already given the current Prime Minister the opportunity to form a government – it will fail, but it’s a way of scraping out one more month of PiS rule. He will likely block legislative changes through to 2025, when his mandate ends.

For example, the creation of a new national park requires change in national law – none has been created in the past 20 years. But faster, more promising mechanisms exist that use administrative, rather than legislative pathways. For instance, the creation of nature reserves relies on General and Regional nature conservation directorates, without involving Parliament.

The new majority will likely designate more pro-environment individuals to high-ranking positions overseeing state forests. They may be more responsive to civil society and communities raising concerns over illegal and unsustainable logging.

The new coalition’s promises for the first 100 days focus clearly on accountability, including access to justice for environmental and forest issues, and protection of high-value forests, so forests will already be better protected.

Mending fences with the EU

We expect the new government to be much more pro-EU, and less combative about implementing EU legislation. The coalition is already drafting laws to fix the years-long, rule of law battles that Poland has fought with the EU, and to make Poland’s judicial system more in line with democratic norms on separation of powers. At a minimum, they must implement the CJEU rulings; even though this requires legislative change, it would be startling for the President to block this… But we could still be surprised!

Poland may now be a better partner in environmental decision-making as we hope that the coalition’s vice-minister of environment will be from the Greens, which would influence Poland’s EU Council members.

Notably, the behaviour of certain political parties within Poland differs from their behaviour in EU institutions. Civic Platform may be very pro-environment within Poland, but in the European Parliament they joined PiS this summer to reject environmental provisions on renewable energy, and helped to almost-torpedo the proposed Nature Restoration Law (FW 287).

Cautious optimism: The election was a strong first step, and the general mood is very positive. You can see that people are truly relieved. For the first time in a decade, we see potential for real change. But if we don’t continue the work, the potential may evaporate.”

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Categories: Forest Watch, Partner Voices

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