Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled earlier this month that parts of EU law are incompatible with the country’s constitution, undermining the central tenet of the European Union and fuelling talk that Poland could one day quit the 27-nation bloc.
Poland’s right-wing populist government has clashed regularly over issues ranging from LGBT rights to judicial independence with the European Commission, triggering a series of European Court of Justice cases.
Responding to a question on the dispute between the EU and Poland on Friday, the outgoing German Chancellor said: “We are all member states of the European Union, which means we have the duty always to try to find compromise – without giving up our principles, obviously.
“I think it is time to talk more in depth with the Polish government on how to overcome the problems.
“It is certainly right that, from time to time, cases have to be decided by the European Court of Justice.”
The chancellor, who will leave office once a new German coalition is formed, said she was concerned by the number of cases ending up at the EU’s top court.
But her comments sparked the fury of EU officials and MEPs who are adamant the EU Commission should trigger the rule of law mechanism against Poland and other member states, such as Hungary, as soon as possible.
Green MEP Sergey Lagodinsky told Politico that Mrs Merkel’s comments showed “why we were right to call on Parliament to sue the Commission for inaction”.
He warned: “If we continue waiting and talking, as Merkel suggests, we will soon have no democracy left to save in a number of EU states.”
The Green MEP also proposed a lawsuit against the EU Commission, later adopted in the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee, should Ursula von der Leyen’s team fail to act.
Officials expect the Commission to trigger the mechanism in the coming weeks but it is unclear which country will be its first victim.
The bloc’s executive can trigger the policy if it has concerns over rule of law shortcomings that could affect the management of the EU budget, such as a lack of independence of national courts from their governments.
Sylwia Żyrek, a lawyer representing the Polish government, argued the mechanism was not “conditional” in nature, but “it’s a mechanism to impose a sanction”.
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Lawyers from Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland and other EU member states were quick to defend the EU’s legal mechanism.
Tamas Lukacs, a lawyer for the European Parliament, said: “A breach of the rule of law in a member state clearly poses a risk to the implementation of the EU budget.”
Defending Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal’s decision, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said each member state must be treated with respect and the EU should not be only “a grouping of those who are equal and more equal”.
The ruling sparked Polexit fears pushing more than 100,000 Poles to demonstrate in support of the European Union two weeks ago.
According to the organisers, protests took place in over 100 towns and cities across Poland and several cities abroad, with 80,000-100,000 people gathering in the capital Warsaw alone, waving Polish and EU flags and shouting “We are staying”.
Donald Tusk, a former head of the European Council and now leader of the main opposition party Civic Platform, said the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s policies were jeopardising Poland’s future in Europe.
“We know why they want to leave (the EU) … so that they can violate democratic rules with impunity,” he said, speaking in front of Warsaw’s Royal Castle, surrounded by thousands of protesters flanked by police vans flashing their lights.
PiS says it has no plans for a “Polexit”.