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Polish leader blasts EU over rule of law dispute

October 19, 2021

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has defended the sovereignty of EU member states and accused the bloc of "blackmail." He stood by the decision of Poland's top court that its national law takes precedence over EU law.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaking at the European Parliament, sat behind him is European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has said Poland wants to remain part of the EU despite its ongoing dispute with BrusselsImage: Ronald Wittek/AP/picture alliance

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended his country at the European Parliament on Tuesday, answer questions from lawmakers about a recent ruling by his country's Constitutional Tribunal on the primacy of EU law.

The top Polish court ruled on October 7 that parts of the EU treaties are "incompatible" with the country's constitution and that the latter takes precedence.

The ruling has been widely criticized by the European Commission and several member states, including France and Germany, and also prompted tens of thousands of people to rally across Poland on Sunday, for fears that the ruling could be the first step toward Poland leaving the EU.

How do young Poles feel about the EU?

Morawiecki accuses EU of 'blackmail'

In a long and emotional debate, the Polish prime minister rejected comments suggesting his country was on a path to a possible "Polexit" and instead advocated for member nations to come together to fight shared challenges such as energy shortages, migration and Russian aggression.

But he also went on the attack against the bloc and Poland's critics, decrying that certain member states were "being treated as second-class," saying that Poland was being unfairly attacked by European institutions.

"Member states remain sovereign," Morawiecki said, defending the controversial Polish ruling.

He accused the EU of "blackmail," saying "it is unacceptable to talk about financial penalties... I will not accept politicians wanting to blackmail and threaten Poland."

Morawiecki went on to criticize the "creeping" expansion of EU powers, pushed by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda lent some support to the Polish government after speaking to his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda and offering to mediate between the two sides.

"I think it is morally endlessly harmful and not right to link law supremacy principles with financial resources," Nauseda told a news conference.

"Even if it was legally possible, morally it would be a very harmful precedent which would do unimaginable harm to European Union unity."

No 'special deals' for Poland

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told EU lawmakers on Monday that she was "deeply concerned" over the developments in Poland.

She said the "Article 7 procedure" remained a "powerful tool" to deal with violations from member states. Article 7 allows the EU to remove certain rights from member states, including stripping them of their voting rights.

"We cannot and we will not allow our common values to be put at risk," von der Leyen told the Parliament, promising to rein Poland in.

Manfred Weber, head of the center-right European People's Party parliamentary group, clarified that EU institutions were not at odds with Poland, but with the policy of the current Polish government.

He added that the government in Warsaw was "laying the ax to the foundations of the independence of the judiciary." 

"Anyone who questions the independence of the legal system is effectively resigning as a member state," Weber warned.

German European Affairs Minister Michael Roth echoed Weber's firmness. "There is no room for compromise in the dispute with Poland over the rule of law," Roth said on the sidelines of a meeting with his counterparts on Tuesday.

Roth said the two sides should hold talks, but warned that "there can be no special deals" for Poland. "At the end of such a dialogue, there must be a clear avowal of what we all have committed to when we joined the European Union," he said.

Billions in grants at stake

Poland has requested €23 billion ($27 billion) in grants and €12 billion in cheap loans from the EU's post-pandemic recovery fund. The EU Commission has said any money would come with certain conditions.

Additional financial leverage against Warsaw could come in the form of withheld grants for development and structural projects for the next six years, amounting to around €70 billion.

However, Poland, along with Hungary, has threatened to use its veto power to block key EU legislation on climate change and migration.

While there is no procedure to kick a member state out of the union, the evocation of Article 7 could leave Poland powerless in any negotiations.

A long-running dispute

The conflict between Brussels and Warsaw goes back to the EU's condemnation of actions by the Polish government that Brussels deems violate judicial independence.

EU, Poland row over judicial committee

The same court that ruled in favor of the primacy of Polish law was already considered illegitimate by the EU due to the political influence imposed on it by the ruling Law and Justice party.

In March, the ECJ said the EU can force member states to disregard certain provisions in national law, including constitutional law. It added that Poland's recently implemented procedure for appointing members of the top court is a violation of EU law.

The ECJ ruling could allow it to force Poland to repeal parts of the judicial reform. The EU has also been withholding billions of euros in post-pandemic rebuilding funds over concerns that the rule of law is being degraded in Poland.

ab, jcg/cmk (AP, AFP, Reuters)