The EU’s Parliament has threatened to sue Ursula Von Der Leyen if she refuses to withhold funding from Poland amid an increasingly bitter row over the rule of law.
David Sassoli, parliament’s president, said lawyers have been instructed to ‘prepare a lawsuit against the [EU] Commission’ – which Ms Von Der Leyen heads – ‘to ensure rules are properly enforced.’
Mr Sassoli, an Italian politician who was elected parliament’s president in 2019, spoke out as national leaders from the bloc’s 27 member states convene in Brussels today for two days of talks with Poland set to be top of the agenda.
Backing Mr Sassoli are EU heavyweights such as France and the Netherlands, along with smaller states such as Sweden, Finland and Luxembourg.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is relying largely on Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban for support, though outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned the EU against isolating Poland and urged compromise.
The row was sparked when Poland’s top constitutional court ruled that laws made within the country take precedence over laws written in Brussels – a major challenge to the EU’s founding principles.
Ms Von Der Leyen is now facing pressure to withhold £48billion in EU Covid recovery funding that is earmarked for Poland unless the government falls back into line.
Von der Leyen said she was ‘deeply concerned’, adding that ‘we cannot and will not allow our common values to be put at risk’
Mateusz Morawiecki told the parliament in Strasbourg that Poland would not bow to ‘European centralism’ and that the constitution of a country was the highest law on the Continent
The row between Poland and the EU
Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki came under repeated criticism during a tense debate in the European Parliament on Tuesday, with Ursula Von der Leyen telling Warsaw that its challenge to the supremacy of EU law would not go unpunished.
Relations between Poland and the EU have been rocky for years and reached a new low earlier this month after the tribunal ruled that Polish laws take precedence over those of the 27-nation bloc, which Poland joined in 2004.
The ruling escalated lingering tensions over democratic standards between Poland’s right-wing nationalist government and EU institutions in Brussels.
The dispute is largely over changes to the Polish judicial system which give the ruling party more power over the courts. Polish authorities say they seek to reform a corrupt and inefficient justice system.
The European Commission believes the changes erode the country’s democratic system of checks and balances.
Ultimately, at the heart of the row is the question of who should have the most power within the bloc – each individual nation over its citizens or the EU institutions over the member nations. It was the prime mover behind the exit of Britain from the EU, and it has stirred passions in several Eastern and Central European nations like Poland and Hungary.
The whole idea behind the EU is that a united front will make the 27 nations a formidable power in the world, while they would be bystanders just as individual countries. But even if member states are happy to see that power used in international relations, some abhor it when it affects them.
Morawiecki described Poland as a nation that is being intimidated and attacked by an EU whose top court issues rulings that aim to take more and more power away from its nations. He insisted that the EU must remain a union of sovereign states until all its members agree by treaty to give up more of their own national powers.
‘We are now seeing a creeping revolution taking place by way of verdicts of the European Court of Justice,’ he said.
Morawiecki defended his country’s stance that the highest law in Poland is the country’s constitution. He insisted that Poland abides by EU treaties and brushed off comment from opponents of his government who fear that the court’s ruling has put the country on a path to a possible exit from the EU.
Morawiecki also said he sees double standards in the EU rulings on Poland’s changes to its judiciary, noting that each country has its own judicial system, with politicians electing judges in some cases.
The Polish tribunal majority ruling – in response to a case brought by Morawiecki – said Poland’s EU membership did not give the European Court of Justice supreme legal authority and did not mean that Poland had shifted its legal sovereignty to the EU.
Morawiecki asked for the review after the European Court of Justice ruled in March that Poland’s new regulations for appointing judges to the Supreme Court could violate EU law. The ruling obliged Poland’s government to discontinue the rules that gave politicians influence over judicial appointments. To date, Poland has not complied.
Last month, the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice to impose daily fines on Poland until it improves the functioning of the Polish Supreme Court and suspends the laws that were deemed to undermine judicial independence.
Morawiecki told EU lawmakers during the debate that a disputed disciplinary chamber of Poland’s Supreme Court will be closed, because it did not meet expectations, without offering a clear timeline.
Ms Von Der Leyen could also take the issue to the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice, to obtain a ruling that Poland is in violation of EU laws.
If the court rules in her favour, then it can levy daily fines until Poland returns to compliance. If Poland refuses to pay, then it can withhold funds.
Ms Von Der Leyen could also try to strip Poland of voting rights within EU institutions, but she would need the support of the bloc’s 26 other leaders – with Hungary likely to block the move.
The row is just the latest crisis to rock the EU since Britain voted to leave in 2016, in large part due to concerns over sovereignty.
It has sparked concerns over a so-called ‘Polexit’, which observers have warned may lead to the wholesale collapse of the European project.
Poland – an ex-Communist nation where support for the EU is high among voters – is unlikely to vote to leave the EU as Britain did, but many fear it could cause a collapse from within by challenging the bloc’s founding principles.
Mr Morawiecki has denied trying to break up the bloc, saying he is not challenging the EU’s laws themselves – only interpretations of them.
Poland and Hungary are bitterly opposed to agreements negotiated last year as the EU’s £1.5trillion Covid recovery budget was agreed, which linked the funding to enforcing laws such as equality and human rights legislation.
Both countries are led by right-wing populist parties who have been involved in long-running spats with the EU over the independence of courts, freedom of the press, and LGBT rights.
In a fiery speech to the European Parliament earlier this week, Mr Morawiecki accused the EU of ‘blackmail’ over the recovery funds which he said poses a threat to the union.
But Ms Von Der Leyen struck back. Referring to the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989, she said: ‘The people of Poland wanted democracy … they wanted the freedom to choose their government, they wanted free speech and free media, they wanted an end to corruption and they wanted independent courts to protect their rights.
‘This is what Europe is about and that is what Europe stands for,’ she added. ‘The recent ruling of the Polish Constitutional Court puts much of it into question.’
Last week, the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that EU law was incompatible with aspects of the country’s constitution.
Morawiecki insisted that there was no reason why this should drive a wedge between Warsaw and Brussels, but maintained that he would not budge on the issue.
‘The EU will not fall apart simply because our legal systems will be different,’ he said, adding: ‘If you want to make a non-national superstate out of Europe, first get the consent of all the European states and societies.’
Meanwhile, he praised the ‘strong political and economical organism’ of the Bloc, showing the complex position his party is seeking to straddle as it grapples with Brussels, while up to 80 per cent of Poles back being part of the EU.
He also rejected any suggestion that the country was on a pathway to ‘Polexit,’ following in Britain’s footsteps.
‘We should not be spreading further lies about Poland leaving the EU,’ he said.
‘For us, European integration is a civilisational and strategic choice,’ he said. ‘We are here, we belong here and we are not going anywhere.’
He said that Western countries, especially France and Germany, had benefited enormously from the entrance of eastern states into the Bloc.
However, he said that the West-East divide had resulted in first and second classes within the EU, with member states like Poland given short shrift.
‘Today all Europeans, expect one thing. They want us to face up to the challenges posed by several crises at the same time, and not against each other, looking for someone to blame – or rather, those who are not really to blame, but whom it is convenient to blame,’ he said.
‘We cannot remain silent when our country – including in this Chamber – is attacked in an unfair and biased manner.’
The PM said that Poland was a ‘proud nation’ and would not be cowed by threats of financial penalties which were tantamount to ‘blackmail.’
‘I reject the language of threats, hazing and coercion,’ Morawiecki said.
Morawiecki also criticised the ‘creeping’ expansion of EU powers, with particular regard to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Von der Leyen warned that Poland’s constitutional ruling ‘is a direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order.’
Earlier this month, Poland’s Constitutional Court (pictured) ruled that EU treaties were incompatible with the Polish constitution, putting Warsaw and Brussels on a full collision course
She said a first option is so-called infringements, where the Commission legally challenges the Polish court’s judgment, which 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 block Polish access to EU grants for development and structural projects in the 2021-2027 budget worth around 70 billion euros.
Von der Leyen said a third option is the application of Article 7 of the EU’s treaties. 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.
Morawiecki, speaking after her in the EU assembly, accused the bloc of overstepping its authority.
‘EU competencies have clear boundaries, we must not remain silent when those boundaries are breached. So we are saying yes to European universalism, but we say no to European centralism,’ he said.
A succession of members of the parliament then stood up to castigate the Polish leader, while some EU ministers gathering for a meeting in Luxembourg joined the chorus of criticism.
Morawiecki ended up running over his allotted speaking time, prompting warnings from Parliament Vice President Pedro Silva Pereira.
‘You will take note that I was extremely flexible with the allocated time so that nobody can say that you didn’t have time enough to give explanations to the European Parliament,’ Pereira told the PM.
‘But respect of the allocated time is also a way of showing respect for this house of the European democracy.’
Why some fear a ‘Polexit’ from European Union
Poland will be a focus of European attention this week, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki addressing the European Parliament and leaders at a European Union summit expected to grapple with a legal conundrum created by a recent ruling by Poland’s constitutional court.
Some opponents of Poland’s nationalist government fear that the court’s ruling has put the country on a path to a possible ‘Polexit,’ or a departure from the 27-nation EU like Britain did with Brexit. The government denounces those spreading the idea, which it calls ‘fake news.’ Here is a look at the differing views on the matter – and why Poland’s departure from the bloc is unlikely.
Poland’s government, which is led by the conservative Law and Justice party, has been in conflict with EU officials in Brussels since it took power in 2015. The dispute is largely over changes to the Polish judicial system which give the ruling party more power over the courts. Polish authorities say they seek to reform a corrupt and inefficient justice system. The European Commission believes the changes erode the country’s democratic system of checks and balances.
ANTI-EU RHETORIC EMERGES FROM POLAND
As the standoff over the judiciary has grown more tense, with the Commission threatening to withhold billions of euros in pandemic recovery funds to Poland over it, ruling party leaders have sometimes compared the EU to the Soviet Union, Poland’s occupying power during the Cold War.
Ryszard Terlecki, the party’s deputy leader, said last month that if things don’t go the way Poland likes, ‘we will have to search for drastic solutions.’ Referring to Brexit, he also said: ‘The British showed that the dictatorship of the Brussels bureaucracy did not suit them and turned around and left.’
Marek Suski, another leading party member, said Poland ‘will fight the Brussels occupier’ just as it fought the Nazi and Soviet occupiers in the past. ‘Brussels sends us overlords who are supposed to bring Poland to order, to put us on our knees, so that we might be a German state, and not a proud state of free Poles,’ he declared.
A KEY RULING OVER LAWS
This month Poland’s constitutional court challenged the notion that EU law supersedes the laws of its 27 member nations with a ruling saying that some EU laws are incompatible with the nation’s own constitution.
That decision – made by a court dominated by ruling party loyalists – gives the Polish government the justification it had sought to ignore directives from the European Union’s Court of Justice which it doesn’t like – particularly on matters of judicial independence.
The ruling marks another major test for the EU after years of managing its messy divorce from the U.K.
WHAT DOES THE POLISH GOVERNMENT SAY?
Polish leaders say it’s absurd to think they want to leave the EU and they accuse the opposition of playing with the idea of ‘Polexit’ for political gain.
Morawiecki, the prime minister, said last week that the opposition ‘is trying to insinuate that we want to weaken Poland and the European Union by leaving the EU. This is obviously not only fake news, it is even worse. It is simply a lie that is made to weaken the EU.’
Morawiecki spoke soon after Poland’s leading opposition leader, Donald Tusk, a former EU leader, organized mass nationwide protests voicing support for Poland remaining in the EU.
COULD EXPULSION HAPPEN FOR POLAND?
The EU has no legal mechanism to expel a member. That means for Polexit to happen, it would have to be triggered by Warsaw. At the moment, the idea seems farfetched, because EU membership in Poland is extremely popular, with surveys showing more than 80% of Poles favor being in the bloc.
When Poland entered the EU in 2004, Poles won new freedoms to travel and work across the EU and a dramatic economic transformation was set in motion that has benefited millions.
Yet some Poles still fear that could change. They worry that if new EU funds are withheld from Poland over rule of law disputes, Poles might eventually come to feel that it’s no longer in their benefit to belong to the bloc.
Some simply fear a political accident along the lines of what happened with Britain’s departure from the EU. The former British prime minister who called for a referendum on EU membership, David Cameron, had sought to have the country remain in the bloc. He called for the vote to settle the matter, believing Britons would vote to stay. A majority in 2016 did not, and Cameron quickly resigned.
Reporting by AP