EU rethinks tough approach to rule-of-law crisis in Poland
The European Union is reassessing how aggressively to approach the rule-of-law crisis in Poland after leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron called for restraint.
The European Commission is considering delaying a new mechanism designed to block budget payments to member states in breach of the EU’s democratic standards, according to officials familiar with the discussions. Before the reassessment, the commission had been prepared to send letters to countries accused of violations as soon as this week.
The commission, the EU’s executive arm, is still deciding how to proceed, and the way forward will depend in part on the aftermath of the message Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki gave to the other 26 leaders during a summit in Brussels on Thursday, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because the deliberations are private.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will ultimately make the decision of how and when to proceed, and she’ll take cues from the leaders at the summit, according to the officials.
Von der Leyen told journalists after the meeting on Friday that “no measures will be taken” before a ruling from the bloc’s top court on a challenge by Poland and Hungary questioning the legality of the commission’s new powers. But the commission could take first steps under the conditionality mechanism and “send letters to ask for information or questions that are necessary to be asked,” she said.
Earlier this month, Poland’s top court ruled that some EU laws are incompatible with the country’s constitution, undermining a fundamental precept of the union. The commission has also flagged problems with the independence of Poland’s judiciary as well as anti-LGBTQ resolutions enacted in the country.
The commission has already withheld 36 billion euros ($42 billion) of stimulus funds bound for Poland. It has also threatened to use the new so-called conditionality mechanism, which would block budget payments to the country, as well as to start legal action that could strip Warsaw of its voting rights in the EU.
Earlier this week, Morawiecki didn’t show any indication he was willing to back down in the dispute. Speaking to lawmakers in Strasbourg, France, on Tuesday, he accused EU politicians of blackmailing Poland by withholding the stimulus funds and that the bloc’s top court was conducting a “silent revolution” with its verdicts, which he said undermine sovereign rule in member states.
Morawiecki met with EU leaders, including Merkel and Macron, ahead of the Brussels gathering to discuss the rule-of-law issue. Macron expressed his concerns to the Polish premier over the court decision and asked him to work with the commission to find a solution, according to an Elysee official.
Merkel struck a conciliatory tone before the summit, saying: “We need to find ways and possibilities for coming together, because a cascade of legal disputes at the European Court of Justice is not a solution to the problem of how the rule of law can be revived.”
Coming into the summit, Merkel was worried that some EU leaders were rushing the EU into a fight with Poland that was leaving no room for compromise and could end in disaster. Instead, she has been pushing for patience and dialog.
Other EU leaders, however, took a harder line. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has called for recovery payments to Poland to be withheld until the dispute is resolved.
“The independence of the judiciary in Poland is the main issue at stake here,” Rutte told reporters on Thursday. “It’s very difficult to see how a big new fund of money coming out of this resilience and recovery discussion of last year could be made available for Poland when this is not settled.”
Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said that Poland’s actions must be discussed because it affects the EU’s basic architecture.
“Now we have to see what happens next,” he said in an interview on Friday following the rule-of-law discussion at the summit. “There’s a question about how the justice system is working in Poland and I didn’t get an answer yesterday.”
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