Thursday

15th Nov 2018

Hungary veto sets scene for EU battle on Poland

  • Poland's Morawiecki (l) with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban (r) in Brussels last week (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Hungary and the Czech Republic have backed Poland in its dispute with the EU, as the war on rule of law moved to a larger theatre.

Hungary promised to veto EU sanctions on Poland after the European Commission triggered a punitive process over Polish judicial reforms on Wednesday (20 December).

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"We shall defend Poland in the face of an unfair, fabricated political procedure," Hungary's deputy prime minister Zsolt Semjen said the same day.

The Czech Republic reacted at a higher level, but with no concrete pledge.

The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, phoned his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki to say he was "convinced" that the commission's action "stems from a lack of communication" and that sanctions would "have a negative impact on the whole region".

The commission decision shifted the dispute to the wider European arena after two years of bilateral talks.

Member states are to vote in Brussels on 29 January whether they agree the Polish reforms constitute a "clear risk of a serious breach of rule of law".

That decision is to be taken by a four-fifths majority.

But a subsequent one, to confirm Poland is guilty of "a serious and persistent breach", must be taken by a consensus of the EU-27 minus Poland, prior to the adoption of sanctions, which would freeze Poland's EU voting rights.

Germany and France have backed the commission.

The Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, expected support from the UK ahead of British prime minister Theresa May's visit to Warsaw on Thursday.

But May's office dampened those expectations.

It said she would "raise her concerns [on rule of law] with the [Polish] prime minister", adding "we expect all our partners to abide by international norms".

Italy and Sweden also lined up with the EU mainstream.

"The reform launched by the Warsaw government risks violating the rule of law," Italy's EU affairs minister, Sandro Gozi, said.

"We have confidence in the judgement of the commission," Anna Lind, the Swedish EU affairs minister, also said.

Duda's defiance

The Polish reforms, a set of 13 laws passed by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, would give it political control over courts and judges.

Poland's president, Andrzej Duda, vowed to sign into life two of the bills in defiance of commission appeals.

He repeated government lines - that the commission was acting on "political" motives to harm PiS, that Poland rejected EU "diktats", and that the reforms were needed to purge a Communist-era clique in the judiciary.

"I don't see a problem with parliament having more influence over who becomes a judge," he said.

Waldemar Zurek, a judge on Poland's constitutional tribunal, did see a problem.

He warned that other countries might refuse to recognise the validity of Polish court verdicts in future, prompting a breakdown in judicial cooperation.

But Zbigniew Ziobro, the Polish justice minister, said the EU clash would end in the commission backing down and in Poland being taken more seriously in future.

"Poland is one of the largest EU countries and we expect to be treated with respect, not like some messenger boy," he said.

Too big to fail?

Konrad Szymanski, the Polish EU affairs minister, also said Poland was too big to be sidelined.

He warned that the EU clash would "create a hitherto unseen distrust toward the European integration project" in Polish society.

For Donald Tusk, the EU Council head and a former Polish leader, that was exactly what PiS wanted.

"There's still a gigantic weight of hope in Brussels ... that Poland will remain in the Union," he said. "But I think those in power [in Poland] aren't enthusiastic, to speak delicately, about our EU membership," he said.

Tusk's former foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, went further, saying PiS was creating the kind of regime seen under Franco in Spain.

"That vision is unacceptable from the point of view of the European Union and must, sadly, lead to Polexit," he said.

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