EU-Poland Drama: Sanctions against Poland?

The European Commission’s ruling that the Polish government is amiss of the rule of law has taken Brussels one step closer to introducing sanctions against Warsaw, a senior EU official hinted Wednesday.

Speaking in Brussels, European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said that the EC had adopted an opinion criticizing the Polish government over the ill-fated reforms to Poland’s Constitutional Court, noting that these reforms posed “a systemic risk to the rule of law.”

The ruling, intended to warn Warsaw to address Brussels’ concerns to prevent more serious measures, such as stripping Poland of its voting rights in the bloc or introducing other sanctions, doesn’t seem to have worked.

“We’ve not been able to find a solution to the issues at stake,” Timmermans indicated. Nevertheless, he added, “we hope [the opinion] will help focus our dialogue with the government of Poland on issues that we believe need to be solved to get out of the conflict surrounding the Constitutional Tribunal.”

Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski retorted by insisting that while both Brussels and Warsaw want to end the dispute, “regardless of the Commission’s opinion, we will present our own solutions.”

Moreover, the conservative Law and Justice party government has indicated that it has doubts about the ‘rule of law’ procedure itself, saying that it is not included in the supranational union’s founding treaties. For his part, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said that the ruling was non-binding, and only a ‘suggestion’.

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro went further, suggesting that the Commission’s ruling was being used to blackmail Poland to “take tens of thousands of refugees and migrants.”

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“The Commission intervenes when it is convenient for the Commission,” the minister said. “This confirms that the European Commission has been influenced by [Poland’s] political opposition to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.”

Last week, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo noted that a solution to the crisis would be found inside Poland, without EU interference. Meanwhile, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party to which both Szydlo and President Andrzej Duda belong, told Polish media recently that Brussels’ investigation was “made up” and that the decision “can be challenged in the court of justice of the European Union at any moment.”

The European Commission launched its investigation in January, less than a month after President Duda approved amendments to laws on Poland’s Constitutional Court, handing some of the Court’s powers to the President and the Ministry of Justice. Other changes included increasing the number of justices from 9 to 15, and instituting a two-thirds majority rule for rulings. In response, the EC said that it would be holding a dialogue with Warsaw to prevent what it said was a violation of European democratic norms.

Warsaw now has two weeks to respond to the Commission’s opinion. If it fails to make the necessary changes, the dispute may eventually move up to the leccording to The Guardian, the chances of the harshest penalties being applied are very low, since voting rights can be removed only if there is unanimous agreement among EU country leaders that there has been “a serious and persistent breach of the rule of law,” something Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has indicated wouldn’t happen.

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Last week, commenting on Warsaw’s apparent foot-dragging over Brussels’ demands, Alain Lamassoure, a member of the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, told Politico Europe that the EU’s €14 billion in subsidies to the Polish economy could be the ‘trump card’ the bloc can use to get Warsaw back into line. Another diplomat told the newspaper that it would be “very easy” for Brussels to conduct a “very deep scrutiny of the way the funds are asked for and used.” This is “the only fear of the [Polish government]: an economic retaliation which, according to them, will take form in this way,” the diplomat added.