Europe’s week: Poland in spotlight over EU rule of law

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Poland took centre stage this week, as Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visited both Strasbourg and Brussels.

Tensions have risen between Poland and the EU over a court ruling that challenged the supremacy of EU law over national law. In a fiery debate in the European Parliament this week, Morawiecki was defiant when addressing MEPs.

“It is not acceptable to use financial blackmail, to talk about sanctions, or to use language that goes even further against some member countries. I reject this language of threats or coercion,” Morawiecki said on Tuesday.

Poland’s right-wing government is now in a staring contest with the European Commission which, by law, is the guardian of the EU treaties.

Unlike Britain, Poland does not want to leave the bloc which makes the issue more complicated.

If the country does not respect the rule of law, European democracy is at risk, according to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

“The rule of law is the glue that binds our Union together. It is the foundation of our unity. It is essential for the protection of the values on which our Union is founded,” von der Leyen told MEPs in Strasbourg.

“And this is what all 27 members states have signed up to as part of this Union, as sovereign countries, and free people.”

Since the Law and Justice Party under its leader Jaroslav Kaczynski came to power in 2015, it has opposed liberal democracy, undermined parliamentary procedure and packed the Constitutional Court with loyalists.

The controversial judicial reform caused major headaches in Brussels and Luxembourg, as it’s seen as a direct threat to the independence of the judiciary, one of the pillars of European democracy.

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Former Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka, who is now an MEP for the Social Democrats told Euronews that Morawiecki’s speech on Tuesday was directed at only one person.

“First of all, Mateusz Morawiecki was not speaking to the European Parliament,” Belka said. “He was not even speaking to the Polish public. He was speaking to his boss. And this is Jaroslav Kaczynski.”

“Second, of course, he does not get to the point. As far as the main problems with the Polish judiciary are concerned. He talks about the way the Polish judiciary is organised, which indeed is part of the Polish authority, but it’s about the independence of the judiciary.”

The President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, said on Thursday, “democracy, freedom and the rule of law are not up for negotiation”.

Leaders’ summit

European leaders met in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. Among many topics, including the current energy crisis and migration, Poland featured heavily.

The debate between the heads of state and government on Thursday evening had a less combative tone compared to MEPs earlier in the week, with EU officials describing a “serene atmosphere”.

Leaders reaffirmed the “fundamental” importance of the rule of law and independence of the judiciary and agreed to use political dialogue with “mutual respect” to find a solution.

“There was a clear message from an overwhelming group of leaders at the table that we are highly worried about the situation in Poland. Of course, there’s always an element of dialogue,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte after exiting the meeting on Thursday night.

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“But at the same time, there’s also an understanding that we fully support the Commission, most of us, in clearly putting forward the necessary measures to react to what the Polish government is doing.”

President von der Leyen has promised to use all of her executive powers to reassert the primacy of EU law inside Poland. Potential actions include opening a new infringement procedure, an avenue already tried and tested with mixed results, or triggering a new conditionality mechanism to freeze EU funds, of which Poland is the largest recipient.

The budgetary scheme, in place since January, has never been used and is considered uncharted territory for Brussels. The Commission is said to be ready to activate the mechanism, but officials prefer to wait for a pending ECJ case that is examining its legal validity. The Council’s renewed calls for dialogue are poised to strengthen the precautionary approach.

On Friday, PM Morawiecki met with Marine Le Pen, the president of the far-right National Rally party and one of Europe’s leading eurosceptic voices. Le Pen condemned the “unacceptable blackmail exercised by the European Commission” and expressed her support for the Polish government.

Navalny wins EU human rights award

Also this week in Brussels, imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny won the 2021 Sakharov Prize, the EU’s highest award for human rights work.

Navalny dedicated his win to anti-corruption fighters around the world. He cited journalists, lawyers, officials, and people who take to the streets to denounce corruption in his dedication, which was posted on Twitter.

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“I wish them perseverance and courage even in the scariest of moments,” he wrote.

“When they receive awards, everyone always says: ‘This is a great honour’, and this is true. But I feel that this is not only an honour but also a great responsibility,” he added.

The award was selected by the leaders of the political parties represented in the European Parliament during a plenary session in Strasbourg on Wednesday afternoon.

Navalny, the most prominent foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was nominated alongside Afghan women, whose plight has taken centre stage after the Taliban takeover, and Jeanine Áñez, a Bolivian politician who became interim president in 2019 after alleged electoral fraud by Evo Morales. Áñez was later arrested for allegedly plotting coup d’état against Morales.

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