Monday

20th Nov 2017

EU ministers to discuss Polish situation again

  • EU Commission vice president Frans Timmermans will give member states an update on the rule of law procedure. (Photo: European Commission)

EU member states will discuss the situation in Poland later this month, two months after a reform of the justice system that increased concerns about the respect for the rule of law and democratic standards.

At a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday morning (6 September), the European Commission asked that Poland is added to the agenda of the next meeting of EU ministers on 25 September.

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The commission's vice president, Frans Timmermans, will give an update for ministers on the rule of law procedure, which it opened against Poland in January 2016.

It will be the second time that ministers discuss the issue, after the first debate that was held in May. At the time, they called for dialogue between the commission and the Polish government and avoided talking about sanctions.

Since then, the Polish government has upped the ante with a set of laws that put judges under political control.

"These laws considerably increase the threat to the rule of law in Poland," Timmermans said at the time, warning that the commission was "coming very close to triggering Article 7 [of the EU treaty]," an EU sanction mechanism that has never been used.

The commission gave the Polish government a month to justify the measure. Warsaw answered last week that the commission's concerns were "groundless".

The commission's move to have a discussion does not mean that the EU will get closer to the Article 7 procedure.

"It can be a way to put more pressure on Poland. But I think it's also a way to buy time and test the water," a member state source told EUobserver, noting that the discussion will likely be a factual one.

"It's a way to show that the commission is still engaged in the process," said another member state source.

A Polish source told EUobserver that it was "quite early" to say what can be expected from the discussion.

A question of sovereignty

"It is the commission's prerogative to ask for the discussion and the presidency [of the EU Council] to put it on the agenda," the Polish official said. "We'll see how it goes."

Although the EU executive has said it would be ready to trigger the procedure, it is a decision that many in Brussels would like to take as late as possible.

"It is clear that everyone would like to solve the issue through dialogue," one of the sources said.

In July, the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, vetoed two of the three justice reform bills adopted by the Polish parliament.

He said that he would present his own proposal within two months and there is hope in Brussels that a compromise will be found within the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) in Warsaw that could be acceptable for the EU.

"Most of the countries would prefer to avoid a vote," one of the sources said.

"For some countries - the UK but also others like the Czech Republic - it is a question of sovereignty and it could set a precedent."

"We try to do everything to avoid voting," a source close to the Slovenian prime minister told EUobserver in Ljubljana this week, noting that any sanctions on Poland would be vetoed by at least one country.

Hungary has several times expressed its support to Poland.

"It would show disunity" at a time when the EU is trying to look ahead in the wake of Brexit, the official said.

Alternative

Last week, the Belgian prime minister said that the situation in Poland could be discussed by EU leaders at their next summit, which is due in October.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, for her part, said that the Europeans should not "keep [their] mouth shut in order to keep the peace."

But the European Council president, Donald Tusk, and the commission will try to avoid a discussion that would be divisive at the highest level, the Slovenian official said.

"If nothing moves, no one has an interest in trying to trigger Article 7," said one of the other sources.

"The commission will do it only if it is desperate, and there is nothing else it can do."

The next move for the commission - and an alternative to Article 7 - could be another EU treaty provision, Article 258, the Slovenian official noted.

That article states that the commission can "bring the matter" to the Court of Justice of the European Union when a member state "has failed to fulfil an obligation under the treaties" and has not complied with the EU executive's remarks.

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