BRUSSELS – 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.
Even though Morawiecki openly professed his attachment to the union and its guiding principles before meeting the leaders in the two-day summit, he did not do his EU credentials a favor by meeting with France's far right politicians Marine Le Pen on the sidelines.
Le Pen was long arguing for France to leave the bloc but reverted recently to argue that the EU should be changed from within to give sovereign nations more powers at the expense of Brussels.
Le Pen posted two photos from their meeting on Twitter, saying she and Morawiecki agree on the need to defend the sovereignty of nation states and discussed “the unacceptable blackmail exercised by the European Commission.”
Morawiecki said he met Le Pen at her request and that it was normal for him to meet with all the major French presidential candidates.
The meeting shocked many in Poland since the ruling party has so far resisted cooperation with the French far right due to its Kremlin ties. Opposition leader Donald Tusk, a former EU leader, commented on Twitter that as EU leaders “try to solve dilemma of how to keep Poland in EU, defend rule of law & unblock funds, PM Morawiecki meets with pro-Putin & Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen.”
Geir Moulson in Berlin, Mike Corder in The Hague, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Angela Charlton in Paris and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.