Poland not at end of road on rule of law, says EU's von der Leyen

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By Marek Strzelecki

WARSAW (Reuters) - More work needs to be done on the rule of law in Poland, the European Commission president said on Thursday during a visit to Warsaw after Brussels approved billions of euros in COVID-19 economic recovery funds for the country.

Poland's access to 23.9 billion euros in grants and 11.5 billion euros in cheap loans had been blocked due to a dispute over judicial independence. But on Wednesday the Commission said it was approving Poland's recovery plan, opening the way for Warsaw to get the cash.

Nevertheless, it said that Poland would have to fulfill milestones related to judicial independence, reinstating unlawfully dismissed judges and reforming its disciplinary system, before funds could start flowing.

"We are not at the end of the road on the rule of law in Poland," Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference.

A first payment would only take place when reforms were in place, she said.

Poland rejects accusations that it has sought to politicise the judiciary, arguing that its changes aim to wipe away a residue of Communist-era influence and remove judges who see themselves as above the law.

It has also said that withholding the funds at a time when more than 3.5 million refugees have crossed the border from Ukraine is unjustified.

Central to the rule of law dispute is a disciplinary chamber for judges which critics say is used as a tool of political influence.

Lawmakers in the lower house of parliament have voted in favour of a bill that would replace the chamber with a new body, but critics say it does not tackle the core problem of the politicisation of the judiciary.

The upper house of parliament, the Senate, has proposed amendments to the bill that would ensure judges who were dismissed return to their previous roles and that all decisions of the disciplinary chamber would be annuled. However, these are likely to be rejected when the bill returns to the lower house.

"The Commission has removed any incentive for the authorities which control the lower chamber to take seriously all the positive amendments proposed by the Senate," said Wojciech Sadurski, a law professor at the universities of Sydney and Warsaw.

(Reporting by Alan Charlish, Marek Strzelecki, Pawel Florkiewicz, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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