Thursday

2nd Dec 2021

Polish rule-of-law debate boils over to EU summit

  • Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki (l) and Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán at a previous EU summit (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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EU leaders will address the rule-of-law concerns in Poland on Thursday (20 October) when they gather in Brussels for their regular October summit.

Their discussion comes after the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday said the bloc's executive will take action against Warsaw, which has challenged the supremacy of EU law.

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"We will also touch upon recent developments related to the rule of law during our working session," said the invitation letter by European Council president Charles Michel to leaders. Other topics will be trade, digitalisation, and rising energy prices.

Some governments asked Michel to put the Polish issue on the menu of the EU summit, while other governments have argued that the leaders' forum is not the place for legal issues to be discussed, for which there are separate procedures.

However, the issue has become so politically-charged that some leaders - for example, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte - want to raise their concerns over the erosion of the respect for the rule of law in Poland.

Earlier this month the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, which critics say is under the influence of the nationalist government dominated by the Law and Justice party, ruled that parts of the EU law are not compatible with the Polish constitution.

Von der Leyen warned on Tuesday that this is a "direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order".

"This is a serious issue that needs to be addressed," said one senior diplomat.

"We are not asking for harmonisation of the judiciary [from Poland]. The independence, and no involvement from politics are basic principles, we are not asking much, nobody can disagree with these principles," the diplomat added.

Several member states are concerned that Poland is not respecting various rulings by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) - which could undermine legal protection for EU citizens across the bloc.

Some member states also argue that the commission should not approve Poland's Covid-19 economic recovery plan and funding, until it recognises ECJ rulings.

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki will speak on Thursday during the summit, with von der Leyen addressing EU leaders on the executive's assessment.

Frustration

The rule-of-law issue was not originally planned to be discussed by the EU leaders - who usually only give political guidance to the EU - followed by which governments, the commission and the EU parliament do the legislation.

For instance, France and Germany did not want the rule of law to be a topic for leaders, fearing it would lead to escalation of divisions among member states.

However, it is not the first time this year that frustration with a member state which has consistently challenged EU rules and values has boiled over at a summit.

During the June summit, several EU leaders lashed out at Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán for introducing legislation that targeted LGBTIQ people, which led to an unprecedentedly heated discussion at the EU's top table.

In the meantime, the European Parliament president David Sassoli on Wednesday asked the legal services of the parliament to prepare a lawsuit against the commission for its failure to apply the conditionality regulation.

This legislation, which has been in force since January, allowed the EU to suspend subsidies to countries where the rule of law comes under attack.

Hungary and Poland have challenged the mechanism at the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and a ruling on that is expected early next year.

While the commission has started to put together cases, it is not expected to launch an official proposal for suspension before the ECJ ruling.

Von der Leyen vows action against Poland

Ursula von der Leyen said the commission might use either an infringement procedure, an EU probe into the ruling, the new tool of conditionality which could lead to the suspension of EU funds, or the Article 7 sanctions procedure.

EU leaders confront Orbán on anti-LGBTIQ law

Hungary's premier Viktor Orbán argued that the law does not discriminate against LGBTIQ people - and that he himself defended the rights of "homosexual guys" when he fought against communism as a student leader.

EU warned against making 'Future EU' conference a one-off

Former European Council president Herman van Rompuy plus local authorities warned EU policymakers against making the Conference on the Future of Europe a one-off exercise, arguing that democracy will continue to be under pressure after 2022.

Ombudsman launches probe into Commission tobacco lobbying

The EU Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly has launched an inquiry to assess if the European Commission complies with transparency obligations over tobacco lobbying – ahead of upcoming revisions of rules targeting tobacco consumption.

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