Poland unlikely to face EU discipline on rule of law
The European Commission will not try to impose sanctions on Poland over its breaches of the rule of law any time soon.
Commission vice president Frans Timmermans, in charge of the procedure that was launched more than a year ago, told MEPs on Wednesday (22 March) that the previous concerns still remained.
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"The Polish government hasn't given us any reasons for optimism. The situation is getting worse," he told members of the civic liberties committee.
Beata Szydlo's government still refuses to publish some of the rulings of the constitutional court and the president Andrzej Duda has blocked judges appointed by the last parliament from being sworn in.
Last December the Polish parliament appointed a new president of the constitutional court, in a way that the commission says was a breach of the constitution.
It was the first time that Timmermans spoke on the matter since Poland last month handed in its response to the commission's second batch of recommendations on how to protect rule of law in the country, on top of earlier guidelines issued last July.
Poland dismissed the recommendations as "political interference" and largely ignored them.
But Timmermans ruled out moving the procedure to the next step, which would entail punishing Poland with sanctions, as laid down in Article 7 of the EU treaty.
"I think that invoking Article 7 now would be self-defeating and will not help us in the wider context of what is still going on," Timmermans said.
Bad time for sanctions
EU governments are reluctant to back such a measure, which would have to be imposed by unanimity in the EU Council, representing member states.
Hungary's Viktor Orban and UK's Theresa May are likely to wield their veto. Others fear that EU sanctions of a national government would only add to the many challenges the EU is already facing, not least, the launch of Brexit negotiations.
The commission would also likely struggle to find the necessary number of countries to establish that there was a threat to the rule of law in Poland. This step, unlike the unanimity on sanctions, requires the backing of 22 member states.
In one indication, only 15 countries are part of an informal "Friends of rule of law” group, which gathers EU ministers and MEPs, and in which the Polish question has been unofficially discussed.
The only representative from central and eastern Europe was Estonia, which often defines itself as a Nordic country.
The European Parliament could also confirm the threat to the rule of law by two-thirds of MEPs, but few of them are keen to do that. Instead, they want the commission to do its part and then let blame for vetoes fall on the council.
"Sometimes I am tempted to be the biggest hero for a day and just invoke Article 7," Timmermans said, referring to the EU treaty clause that governs the sanctions procedure.
"Nothing would happen, but at least we would have done our duty," he said.
He added that such a step would end the commission's powers to monitor the situation in Poland.
Instead, Timmermans has asked Malta, which holds the EU Council presidency, to put Poland on the agenda for a discussion. The general affairs council (GAC), the meeting of EU affairs ministers, has a scheduled rule-of-law debate in May, where the rule of law in Poland could fit in nicely.
The Swedish EU affairs minister, Ann Linde, told EUobserver in a recent interview that many of her colleagues saw a need to strengthen EU rule of law mechanisms.
"We have comprehensive measures to control budgetary spendings, but not the rule of law or social issues," Linde said, adding that rule of law was "so much higher on the agenda that just two years ago."
Timmermans didn't rule out the need for other instruments, such as an EU pact on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights, which the parliament called for last year.
Meanwhile, he placed his hopes with the Polish people.
"I am confident in the resilience of Polish society. Their attachment to the EU and its values is strong," Timmermans said.