The signals that Brussels is currently receiving from Warsaw are contradictory. It begins with President Andrzej Duda’s itinerary. The Pole was the only high-ranking representative from the European Union to travel to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. He also destroyed the last appearance that the EU was taking a unified position on China and was staying away from the Olympic Games – whether in protest against human rights violations or just because of the Covid situation. This Monday, Duda flew to Brussels, and one could almost have the impression that a Polish dove of peace was flying to the meetings with Council President Charles Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Shortly after eleven o’clock, Duda and von der Leyen take off their masks for the photographers, after which the conversation continues without touching hands, elbows or fists. In a tweet, von der Leyen later wrote of a “good exchange” and named the current security situation and Russia’s troop deployment on the border with Ukraine as topics. In the event of a “further escalation” in Moscow, the EU would react with sanctions, said von der Leyen, and of course work would be done to guarantee the energy supply. Von der Leyen hasn’t said a word publicly about the issue that has strained relations between Warsaw and Brussels since she took office in December 2019: the state of the rule of law and its undermining by Poland’s national-conservative government.
Duda announced a move last week that is supposed to defuse the ongoing dispute with the EU. The reason: Poland needs peace and Europe must stand together in the face of the Ukraine crisis. The President therefore wants to introduce a law to dissolve the “Disciplinary Chamber”. It was set up to force unpopular judges into line, which is why the European Court of Justice (ECJ) imposed a daily fine of one million euros. Poland has so far refused to pay.
After the talks with Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, Duda spread great optimism to the Polish media that the EU institutions were now also willing to “solve the problem”. In fact, there is relief to be heard in Commission circles that after many months the talks are moving again. However, one must first examine how the law is worded. And just passing the law is not enough: the Commission demands that specific demands are met. This includes not only the abolition of the Disciplinary Chamber. Judges who have been removed from office must also be able to return to service.
Poland hopes to free 24 billion euros from the Corona reconstruction fund
With his move, Duda hopes not only to stop the ECJ’s payment order, but also to free the 24 billion euros in grants from the Corona reconstruction fund, which the Commission is not releasing due to constitutional concerns. The dissolution of the chamber could well be the beginning of a compromise. However, the government led by the PiS has already brought the judiciary under its control to such an extent that it could do without this chamber – and Brussels knows that too.
The extent to which Duda has emancipated himself from his political mentor, the all-powerful PiS boss Jarosław Kaczyński, is pure speculation. He had already surprised the public when he vetoed a controversial media law in December. A statement by the Solidarity Poland party, which is in a coalition with the PiS and is led by Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, shows how divided the government is: Duda shouldn’t give the impression that Poland is “raising the white flag” towards the EU. The government is still a long way from that.
As president, Duda supported all the decisions that led to Poland’s ongoing conflict with the EU institutions. The selective conceding could indicate that the impending withdrawal of the funding is having an effect. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently defused the dispute with the Czech Republic over the expansion of the Polish opencast lignite mine in Turow, located in the border area. He signed a contract with Prime Minister Petr Fiala, which provides for financial compensation payments of around 45 million euros. The Czech Republic then withdrew the complaint before the ECJ, which had imposed a daily fine of 500,000 euros on Poland.
Far from a breakthrough in the dispute with the EU
However, Poland is still a long way from a breakthrough in the dispute with the EU. Von der Leyen is under pressure to be tough on rule of law issues and also to use the rule of law mechanism, which allows the Commission to freeze budget funds. Next week the ECJ will announce its verdict on whether this mechanism is compatible with EU law. Poland and Hungary have appealed against this. If the ECJ dismisses the lawsuit, von der Leyen will have no choice but to take the first steps, with Hungary in particular facing penalties.
Polish representatives in Brussels have already announced a total blockade of the EU institutions in the event that there is no agreement. It looked like a threat when Poland broke a compromise on asylum rules on the border with Belarus in Brussels in January. It was about the possibility of internment and accelerated deportations, which was already more or less agreed upon among the EU diplomats of the 27 member countries. At the last minute, the Polish representatives announced that the compromise did not go far enough.