A 45.5-metre (150-foot) deep diving pool with artificial underwater caves and Mayan ruins, the world’s deepest such structure, opened near Warsaw this weekend.
The complex, named Deepspot, even includes a small wreck for scuba and free divers to explore.
It has 8,000 cubic metres of water — more than 20 times the amount in an ordinary 25-metre pool.
Unlike regular swimming pools, Deepspot can open despite coronavirus restrictions in Poland because it is a training centre that offers courses.
A hotel with rooms from which guests will be able to watch divers at a depth of five metres is also planned.
“It’s the world’s deepest pool,” Deepspot director Michal Braszczynski, a 47-year-old diving enthusiast, told AFP at the opening on Saturday.
The current holder of the Guinness world record is in Montegrotto Terme in Italy and is 42 metres deep.
The Blue Abyss pool planned to open in Britain in 2021 will be 50 metres deep.
Around a dozen customers came on the first day, including eight seasoned divers who hoped to pass an exam to become instructors.
“There are no magnificent fish or coral reefs here so it is no substitute for the sea but it is definitely a good place to learn and to train in order to dive safely in open water,” said Przemyslaw Kacprzak, a 39-year-old diving instructor.
“And it’s fun! It’s like a kindergarten for divers!”
Jerzy Nowacki, a 30-year-old forestry officer and diving novice, said: “For my first time, we went down five metres but you can see all the way to the bottom — the wreck, the caves — it’s magnificent!”
Braszczynski said the pool “will also be used by the fire brigade and the army. There are many scenarios for training and we can also test different equipment”.
Some 5,000 cubic metres of concrete were used over the two years it took to build the pool and it cost around 40 million zloty (8.9 million euros, $10.6 million).
A Polish cardinal suspected of sexual abuse who had been banned by the Vatican from carrying out his duties has died at the age of 97, the Polish Catholic Church said on Monday.
In the statement announcing the death, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, the head of the Polish episcopate, said Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz had caused “pain” among the faithful.
The Vatican’s embassy to Poland earlier this month banned Gulbinowicz from using bishops’ insignia and said he could not be buried in a cathedral after concluding an investigation.
The cardinal had also been asked to donate to a foundation created by the Polish episcopacy to help the victims of sexual abuse.
Appointed cardinal by late Polish pope John Paul II in May 1985, Gulbinowicz has been accused of abusing a 15-year-old in 1989 and protecting a priest who was branded a paedophile.
He is also accused of not having informed the Vatican about another priest who was found guilty of paedophilia.
The higher echelons of Poland’s ecclesiastical hierarchy have been shaken by a series of scandals this year.
Last month, the Vatican’s ambassador to Poland announced the resignation of Polish bishop Edward Janiak who was suspected of covering up sexual abuse of children.
And in August, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Slawoj Leszek Glodz, the Archbishop of Gdansk known for his high-end lifestyle and love of luxury, following accusations he had bullied priests and remained silent on alleged sex abuse.
The European Union criticised Hungary and Poland in its first report on democratic standards across the bloc on Wednesday, as tensions soar between Brussels and Budapest.
The report on the “rule of law” in all 27 EU countries comes a day after the bloc rejected hardline Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s demand that a senior official resign over criticism of his government.
The assessment prepared by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive, voices “serious concern” about judicial independence in both Hungary and Poland.
Budapest and its ally in Warsaw have long been at loggerheads with Brussels over issues like civil freedoms and immigration, with Orban accused of persecuting opposition media and forcing the closure of foreign-owned universities.
On Tuesday, Orban demanded the resignation of Vera Jourova, a commission vice-president responsible for defending EU values and transparency, for calling Hungary an “ill democracy” in an interview.
The commission rejected the call but the row with Budapest sets the stage for a difficult summit of EU leaders on Thursday, where the rule of law debate looks set to poison attempts to fine tune a major coronavirus recovery package.
Asked about Orban’s criticism in an interview with AFP, Jourova refused to be drawn into “personal attacks”.
“But I want to reject strongly one thing: I never offended the Hungarian people,” she said, insisting she respected them and the choices they had made.
“But this does not mean we should not speak, also critically if needed, about actions of governments and elected representatives.”
“No-one’s actions are above criticism.”
The report examines four main pillars of democracy: justice systems, anti-corruption frameworks, media freedom and other checks and balances.
It lists a series of concerns over judicial independence in Hungary and warns of a lack of action to tackle graft related to top officials.
“Deficient independent control mechanisms and tight interconnections between politics and certain national businesses are conducive to corruption,” the report says of Hungary.
Polish legal reforms, a major point of contention between Warsaw and Brussels, “have increased the influence of the executive and legislative powers over the justice system and therefore weakened judicial independence”.
– ‘Absurd and false’ –
The EU has an “Article 7” procedure probing whether Hungary is undermining European legal standards and democratic values.
This could ultimately lead to them losing EU voting rights, though the hurdles for this are high.
Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga condemned the EU report as “absurd and false”.
“The concept and methodology of the Commission’s rule of law report is flawed, its sources are unbalanced and its content is unfounded,” she said in a statement.
The rule of law dispute has hampered protracted negotiations about the EU’s long-term budget and is likely to spill into this week’s summit.
The European Parliament and several member states want to see funding for countries like Hungary tied to respect for democratic legal values.
But Hungary and Poland, accused of a slide into populist authoritarianism, fiercely oppose this and have threatened to veto Europe’s coronavirus recovery plan.
Germany’s Angela Merkel has been working to negotiate a compromise arrangement to protect EU funds from being misspent, but diplomats warn the debate is “very polarised” and far from settled.
European diplomats representing member states voted to back the German plan on Wednesday and to begin negotiating with parliament, but seven countries opposed it, including Hungary and Poland.
Poland’s parliament on Friday passed an animal rights law that had angered fur farmers and kosher meat producers and divided the country’s right-wing governing alliance.
The junior partners in the three-party ruling coalition had refused to vote in favour, provoking the ire of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) ruling party that put forward the legislation.
Kaczynski, who is known for his love of cats, has threatened to exclude his coalition partners from the government during a planned cabinet shuffle or even call snap elections.
After a marathon session that began hours earlier on Thursday and with the support of the liberal opposition, the legislation passed the lower house of parliament with 356 votes in favour, 75 against, and 18 abstentions.
The measure, which still requires the approval of the Senate, bans the breeding of animals for fur and stops exports of halal and kosher meat.
Poland is the world’s third-biggest fur producer after China and Denmark, according to activists, and a major exporter of kosher meat to Israel and Jewish communities in Europe.
“Poland’s standards regarding animals should be no worse, or even better, than those in western countries,” Kaczynski said last week.
Over the weekend, he launched the online #stopfurchallenge for social media users to express their support for the measure.
“In the 21st century, it’s possible to look really good without putting on a fur garment,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Twitter ahead of the vote.
Polish Nobel literature laureate Olga Tokarczuk had also appealed for the law to be passed, along with US animal rights campaigners PETA.
Otwarte Klatki (Open Cages), an animal rights group, said there were around 550 fur farms in Poland breeding some 5.2 million animals.
But the proposals had drawn criticism in the countryside — a key electoral base for the PiS — and experts quoted by Gazeta Wyborcza said the economic impact would be around 1.6 billion euros ($1.9 billion).
Protesting farmers on Wednesday walked to the PiS headquarters chanting: “Kaczynski, traitor of the countryside!”
The Polish Meat Association on Monday said the restrictions on ritual slaughter would have dire consequences for the industry.
“The draft amendment is economically harmful and undermines the social security of many thousands of workers in the meat-processing sector, rural residents and farmers,” it said.
Poland’s foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz resigned Thursday, the second top member of the right-wing government to quit this week.
The decision comes as Warsaw is involved in European diplomacy on the political crisis in neighbouring Belarus.
On Wednesday, Czaputowicz received prominent Belarusian opposition activists Valery and Veronika Tsepkalo.
The departure of Czaputowicz, who had been in the post since 2018, follows that of health minister Lukasz Szumowski on Tuesday.
Szumowski, a cardiologist, has been at the centre of the struggle against the novel coronavirus in Poland, where infection rates have been relatively low compared to many countries in western Europe.
Asked about the timing of the departures, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said “when it comes to politics, I don’t think there’s ever a good time.”
“What if a minister had resigned two months ago, before the first round of the (presidential) election?” he said Thursday.
“Or four months ago when the coronavirus was gathering steam and we had the European Union budget negotiations — there’s never a good time,” he told reporters.
Morawiecki announced the new health minister would be Adam Niedzielski, an economist at the helm of the national health fund since 2019.
As for Poland’s next top diplomat, Morawiecki named Zbigniew Rau, a lawyer and lawmaker who heads the foreign committee in parliament.
Morawiecki said they would take up their new duties in the coming days, adding that their predecessors had given considerable notice before leaving.
Czaputowicz’s office gave no precise reason for his resignation, but told the PAP news agency that “the minister has in the past said the post-election period was the right time for a change” in the post of foreign minister.
President Andrzej Duda was returned to power in a run-off vote last month, backed by the populist right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Szumowski cited personal reasons for his departure. But Polish media have accused his ministry of failing to supervise the procurement of items such as face masks during the pandemic.
Polish President Andrzej Duda has squeezed past his europhile rival to win re-election, official results showed on Monday, but the narrow victory puts his allies in the populist right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party government on the back foot.
Seeking close ties with US President Donald Trump, Duda has vowed to tighten already highly restrictive laws against abortion and has campaigned against LGBT rights.
The incumbent won a new five-year term with 51 percent in Sunday’s vote against Warsaw’s liberal mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, who had promised to mend ties with the European Union.
Experts said the result means the governing PiS party, which has been criticised at home and abroad for controversial reforms of the judiciary seen as eroding democratic freedoms, will face a more confident opposition.
“It’s a small victory,” said Kazimierz Kik, a political expert from Kielce University.
“President Duda has won the election but the real success is for Rafal Trzaskowski and the opposition which has gained ground,” he said.
Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a Warsaw University political scientist, said the high mobilisation of young people for Trzaskowski pointed to “a new opposition force”.
But she warned there was also a “realistic” risk that Poland could begin to resemble Hungary, which has been accused of drifting towards authoritarianism under nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
‘Poland divided in two’
The government faces the immediate challenge of dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, which is pushing Poland into a recession — the country’s first since the fall of communism three decades ago.
“Poland is split down the middle,” said Witold Orlowski, a professor at Warsaw University of Technology Business School, predicting “a very difficult period” ahead.
“On the one hand, even this slim victory is a PiS success and will allow it to continue to govern, at least technically,” Orlowski said.
“On the other hand the social and economic situation will deteriorate and a large part of the electorate will blame the PiS.”
On the foreign policy front, experts said Duda’s close ties with Trump could also spell trouble ahead if the US president fails to win re-election in November.
Duda’s support was particularly strong among older voters in rural areas and small towns and in the east of the country, while Trzaskowski has performed well with a younger electorate in larger cities and western regions on the border with Germany.
“The result of these elections is a Poland divided in two with a not-so-rosy future, as it will be difficult to ease the division and to restore the relationship between the two sides,” analyst Kazimierz Kik told AFP.
White-red vs rainbow
The election had been due to be held in May but was delayed because of the pandemic.
Duda won the first round of voting on June 28 with 43.5 percent against 10 challengers, including Trzaskowski, who came second with 30.4 percent.
Ahead of Sunday’s run-off vote, Trzaskowski campaigned hard to sway voters who backed other opposition candidates.
Four days before the first round, Duda became the first foreign leader to visit the White House since the start of the pandemic and received praise from Trump for doing an “excellent job”.
Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro characterised the second round vote as “a clash of two visions of Poland, the white-red and rainbow-coloured,” referring to the colours of Poland’s national flag and the symbol widely used by the LGBT community.
Duda has railed against “LGBT ideology”, likening it ot a new form of communist brainwashing, and has vowed to change the constitution during his second term to rule out adoptions by same-sex couples.
Poland’s election day Sunday will be one for the history books as polling stations remain closed and turnout will clock in at zero due to a political crisis set off by the coronavirus pandemic.
The EU member of 38 million people has found itself in the bizarre “Twilight Zone” predicament in which the presidential ballot is formally neither postponed nor cancelled, because the government and opposition were unable to agree on a constitutional and safe solution.
“We’re in a fog of legal absurdity,” Warsaw-based political scientist Stanislaw Mocek told AFP, echoing the widespread head-scratching and concern.
The government “should have declared a natural disaster to lawfully postpone the election” under the constitution.
The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party has explained away its refusal to do so by saying Poland’s coronavirus situation is not severe enough to warrant the move.
The party has also implied that were it to declare a natural disaster, multinational corporations present in Poland would claim huge sums in compensation that the state would be hard-pressed to pay.
But the liberal opposition and many observers also see another rationale for why the government was set on the May 10 date, despite opinion surveys showing that three out of four Poles wanted a deferral.
The opposition, which has long called for a delay over concerns that a free, fair and safe election is impossible under lockdown, believes the PiS wants the ballot held as soon as possible so that its ally and incumbent Andrzej Duda wins.
The president is the current frontrunner and could secure a second term in the first round with 50 percent of the vote, but his support would likely drop once the economic effects of the pandemic are felt.
Last month, the PiS-controlled parliament passed a law stating the election would be held by postal vote only in a bid to quiet health concerns while maintaining the date.
But the opposition-controlled senate sat on the legislation for weeks before rejecting it, leaving the government no time to organise the election.
On Wednesday, the PiS and its allied Agreement party announced that the poll would be declared null and void after the fact.
“After the May 10, 2020 date passes and the Supreme Court annuls the election as expected in light of the fact that the vote will not have taken place, the speaker of parliament will announce a new presidential election for the first available date,” they said in a statement.
Microsoft on Tuesday announced it would invest one billion dollars in Poland to expand its operations, including the creation of a new regional cloud-computing data hub.
The US tech giant said it had signed an agreement with Poland’s state-backed National Cloud Operator to provide “cloud solutions for all industries and companies in Poland”, according to a statement on its website.
“Another great global player chose Poland to locate its investment, worth as much as $ 1 billion, the largest in our region of Europe,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Tuesday on his official Facebook page.
“This is another important step on the road to digitisation and accelerating the development of the entire Polish economy.”
The investment project is expected to last seven years, Microsoft said.
Microsoft is among the global leaders in providing cloud services — an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
As well as charging for the service, cloud operators are able to harvest huge caches data and open up many other revenue streams.
The National Cloud Operator was set up two years ago by the state-controlled PKO Bank and the Polish National Development fund to speed development of the digital economy.
Once among the EU’s most rapidly expanding economies, growth in Poland is set to shrink by 3.4 per cent this year, according to a revised government projection, down from an expansion of 3.7 per cent of GDP forecast prior to the pandemic.
The EU on Wednesday launched a new legal challenge against reforms in Poland that Brussels says threaten judicial independence.
The move is the latest round in a long-running tussle between the European Commission — the bloc’s executive — and right-wing governments in Eastern Europe it accuses of undermining fundamental EU values.
Wednesday’s case is the fourth lodged by commission against Warsaw since the conservative government there began seeking new oversight over judges’ work and careers.
Some of the reforms have been already been softened or rolled back, but the Polish government is pushing ahead with new disciplinary rules opposed by Brussels.
A commission statement said the latest “infringement procedure” was “designed to safeguard the independence of judges in Poland” against “political control”.
It was announced by Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova, who travelled to Poland in January to raise concerns with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s government.
“Member states can reform their judiciary, but they have to do it without breaching the EU treaties,” she told reporters during a Brussels video briefing.
“There are clear risks that the provisions regarding the disciplinary regime against judges can be used for political control of the content of judicial decisions, among others.
“This is a European issue, because Polish courts apply European law. Judges from other countries must trust that Polish judges act independently.
“This mutual trust is the foundation of our single market,” she warned, giving Warsaw two months to respond to an action that “can not have come as a surprise”.
– Judicial unease –
According to the commission, the law “increases the number of cases in which the content of judicial decisions can be qualified as a disciplinary offence.
“As a result, the disciplinary regime can be used as a system of political control of the content of judicial decisions.”
In a sign of unease, a German court in February refused to extradite a suspect to Poland, citing fears that the judicial reforms might deprive him of a fair trial.
Three infringement procedures have already been launched against Poland since 2017.
The first two, concerning retirement conditions for judges of the ordinary courts and the Supreme Court, were upheld by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
In the third case, concerning the new rules for judges, the court ordered Poland on April 8 to suspend the new disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court, pending a final ruling.
The head of the Polish Supreme Court, Malgorzata Gersdorf, ordered the suspension, but the decision was challenged and the matter referred to the Constitutional Court.
The European Commission has also initiated a procedure under Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Poland in 2017, which in theory can lead to political sanctions.
This mechanism, provided for in the event of a “serious breach” of the rule of law in an EU member, has also been activated, this time by the European Parliament, against Viktor Orban’s Hungary.