ECJ ‘cannot ensure’ Poland will use EU funds lawfully says expert
EU leaders are meeting in Brussels tomorrow for an EU Council Summit aimed at addressing the energy crisis crippling the bloc. But some are already vowing to derail the discussion on the ongoing row between Brussels and Poland following yesterday’s confrontation between Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Ursula von der Leyen.
The Dutch confirmed Prime Minister Mark Rutte will raise the issue, Sweden will also follow suit despite EU Council President Charles Michel having already made clear he will not allow the rule of law debate to overshadow the summit.
Speaking on behalf of the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg), Belgium said it will demand stronger actions by the EU Commission against Poland.
Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmès said: “In our view, swift and decisive action is needed to deal with systemic threats to the rule of law in several member states.
“The launching of infringement procedures is in this case self-evident but insufficient.
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“We therefore equally call upon the Commission to make use, when applicable, of the rule-of-law conditionality regulation at the earliest possible time and to seriously consider additional steps to address the inherent risks that the deterioration of the rule of law poses to future disbursements of funds.”
Poland’s prime minister came under repeated criticism during a tense debate in the European Parliament on Tuesday, with the EU’s chief executive telling Warsaw that its challenge to the supremacy of EU law would not go unpunished.
Poland’s relations with the European Union, already badly strained, took a big knock last week when its Constitutional Tribunal ruled that elements of EU law were incompatible with the Polish constitution.
“Your arguments are not getting better. You’re just escaping the debate,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, visibly exasperated with Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki after more than four hours of back-and-forth in the chamber.
Mrs Von der Leyen described the Polish tribunal’s ruling as “a direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order”.
She laid out three options for a response to the Polish court’s attack on the primacy of EU law, ranging from legal action to a cut in funding and suspension of voting rights.
European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders, speaking after a meeting of EU ministers, said the Commission would start “written procedures” against Poland in the coming weeks, adding that he planned to visit Warsaw for talks.
EU diplomats said a large majority of EU countries were critical of Poland, though Hungary defended it.
Brussels has long accused the Polish government of undermining the independence of its judiciary, but last week’s court ruling turned a stand-off into a full-blown crisis, raising fears that Poland could eventually exit the bloc.
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Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice party says it has no plans for a “Polexit” and – unlike Britain before its Brexit referendum in 2016 – popular support for EU membership remains high in Poland.
In an open letter sent before his appearance at the EU assembly in the French city of Strasbourg, Mr Morawiecki complained of EU mission creep that would lead to a “centrally managed organism, governed by institutions deprived of democratic control”.
He doubled down on that view in the parliament debate on Tuesday.
“EU competencies have clear boundaries, we must not remain silent when those boundaries are breached,” he said. “So we are saying yes to European universalism, but we say no to European centralism.”
The first option for action outlined by von der Leyen is known as an “infringement”, where the Commission legally challenges the Polish court’s judgment and could lead to fines.
Another option is a conditionality mechanism and other financial tools, whereby EU funds would be withheld from Poland.
Until Warsaw’s clash with Brussels is resolved, it is unlikely to see any of the 23.9 billion euros in grants and 12.1 billion in cheap loans that it applied for as part of the EU’s recovery fund after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EU could even eventually block Polish access to EU grants for development and structural projects in the 2021-2027 budget worth around 70 billion euros.
Mrs Von der Leyen said a third option was the application of Article 7 of the EU treaty. Under this, rights of member states – including the right to vote on EU decisions – can be suspended because they have breached core values of the bloc.