EU unconvinced by Polish arguments on judicial changes at end of summit

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  • Mateusz Morawiecki
    Prime Minister of Poland

Polish arguments that fundamental judicial changes the country has made would not undermine the European Union on Friday failed to convince key bloc leaders who said that the withholding of billions in EU recovery funds would likely continue unless Warsaw falls back into line.

At the end of a two-day EU summit dominated by the standoff over core values like judicial independence and the primacy of EU law in member states, a large majority of leaders insisted that preparations for sanctions against Poland needed to continue apace.

“No European country can call itself European if it's judges are not independent,” said French President Emmanuel Macron.

And when Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki sowed the seeds of doubt that EU law should take a backseat to national rules, many leaders insisted that the EU's executive arm had not choice but to move against Poland over the rule of law dispute.

“There are no alternatives. The laws are clear,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said. “The treaty ... the basis of the union, was put into question. It’s clear the Commission cannot not go forward.”

EU nations have warned for years over what they see as a backsliding of democratic principles in Poland when it comes to an independent judiciary and free media. They said Morawiecki’s nationalist government stacked the constitutional court with handpicked judges and then had the same court challenge the supremacy of EU law.

To counter this, Morawiecki claims the EU institutions are so power-hungry that they treat the 27 member nations as mere vassals, grabbing power without a legal base and imposing its values against the wishes of sovereign peoples.

And by threatening sanctions, he said the EU was using plain “blackmail.”

Even if many potential sanctions would be months - if not years - away, the EU is holding back 36 billion euros in resilience funds for Poland aimed at helping the nation bounce back from the pandemic. It hasn't released the funds because Poland needs to meet certain conditions that many leaders say necessitate legal changes Morawiecki refuses to make.

“I cannot see a situation if this is still lingering, that the Commission will decide on the resilience plan for Poland,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. “The general issues around the rule of law have to be addressed. This was very clear," he said, adding an large majority of leaders felt that way.

The EU’s executive arm can start infringement procedures, or activate a mechanism allowing the suspension of other EU payments to a member country breaching the principles of the rule of law.

Such a confrontation though could throw the bloc into another existential crisis which German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to avoid.

Merkel said that in their meetings with Morawiecki, she and Macron “expressed our great concern that we must get out of this escalating spiral, because the rule of law – particularly in this context of judicial independence – is of course a key pillar of European values”.

Poland has been perceived lately as trying to undermine the EU with anti-Brussels rhetoric and actions, much like Prime Minister Viktor Orban has done in recent years. It fears that the EU is fraying at the edges and that another exit, like the one from the United Kingdom, might loom.

At a news briefing in Brussels after the summit, Morawiecki argued that Poland has no problem with the rule of law and that those who think it does don't understand the issues Poland has faced with a judiciary that needed radical reforms, and still needs more reforms. He also argued that there need to be limits to EU power, saying it’s not a “super state.”

“Nobody agreed to this in Europe,” he said.

Morawiecki argued that there are areas that the EU does not have responsibility over, citing sports, health, public safety and border security as examples.

Combating Belarus’s ‘people-smuggling’

The bloc was somewhat more united on the question of illegal immigration coming from Belarus, as EU leaders vowed at the end “keep up the pressure" on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to halt the flow of migrants from his country and raised the prospect of new sanctions amid calls by some member states to build walls and fences to thwart new arrivals.

Poland and Lithuania have been struggling to cope with an unusually high number of migrants arriving at their borders with Belarus in recent months. The EU accuses Lukashenko’s government of using them to destabilise the 27-country region in retaliation for EU sanctions.

After nearly five hours of discussions, leaders agreed that they “will not accept any attempt by third countries to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes". They also condemned “all hybrid attacks at the EU's borders".

Migrant arrivals began increasing a year ago after the EU slapped sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over the August 2020 presidential election, which the West views as rigged, and the security crackdown on the Belarusian opposition and peaceful protesters that followed.

Leaders promised to continue countering what EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called “state-sponsored smuggling."

The EU's executive arm has already proposed to tighten visa restrictions on members of Lukashenko’s government and Von der Leyen said the EU was ready to explore additional sanctions against individuals and entities. Earlier this week, EU foreign ministers discussed possible measures against Belarusian airline Belavia.

Migration has been a sensitive and divisive topic since the arrival in Europe in 2015 of well over 1 million migrants, most of them refugees fleeing conflict in Syria. The exodus sparked one of the EU’s biggest political crises and member states have yet to find an agreement on a system that would guarantee shared responsibility for the new arrivals.

A dozen EU countries said before the summit that the bloc should fund construction of physical barriers to better protect itself. The European Commission says it has never financed fences, although it acknowledges the right, or need, for EU countries to put up protective barriers.

A dozen EU countries said before the summit that the bloc should fund construction of physical barriers to better protect itself. The European Commission says it has never financed fences, although it acknowledges the right, or need, for EU countries to put up protective barriers.

However, Von der Leyen said that although EU funds are used for border management – including equipment, personnel and logistics – “there will be no funding of barbed wire and walls."

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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