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22nd Mar 2019

Poland urged to settle EU rule of law concerns next month

Poland will have to do more to allay the European Commission's concerns over its domestic rule of law issues, but EU member states welcomed some progress between the EU executive and Warsaw at a meeting of EU affairs ministers on Tuesday (17 April).

"We are making progress, [...] we will need to continue this dialogue to achieve more concrete progress," commission vice-president Frans Timmermans told reporters after the meeting.

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"There is still a long way to go," Timmermans added, saying: "We still need concrete results and the days and weeks to come."

Timmermans urged the Polish authorities to treat the next meeting of EU ministers - on 14 May - as a "point of reference" and address all of the commission's rule of law concerns.

The Dutch commissioner briefed ministers on his recent visit to Warsaw, where, for the first time since the dispute was triggered two years ago, there have been discussions on the commission's concerns over the Polish government's overhaul of the judiciary.

The commission last December launched an unprecedented procedure to bring Poland's nationalistic government, under the Law and Justice party (PiS), in line with EU standards on rule of law. This followed Warsaw passing several pieces of legislation aimed at brining the judiciary under political control.

The so-called 'Article 7' procedure could result in the suspension of Poland's EU voting rights, but that is unlikely to happen as member states are reluctant to sanction each other. Hungary, an ally of PiS, has already said it would veto such move.

EU ministers spoke out in support of continued dialogue at Tuesday's meeting, but insisted that more needs to be done.

"Despite the existing progress, the results are not yet enough, so we urge the commission to continue the dialogue with Poland with the clear expectation of reaching soon enough results which would make it possible to end this procedure," German state secretary Michael Roth said on arrival.

"We expect a compromise in the end, which is sustainable for all of us," he added.

Cosmetic compromise

Poland passed legislation last week that aims to alleviate some of the commission's concerns, but critics say the changes are only cosmetic and would not stop it extending political control over the courts.

Warsaw's revisions would remove the justice minister's ability to fire the heads of courts without consultation, introduce an equal retirement age for male and female judges, and allow the publication of three Constitutional Court rulings from 2016 that had been blocked by the government.

The country's president Andrzej Duda has yet to sign the amendments into law.

Warsaw changed tactics last December: PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski installed a new prime minister in Mateusz Morawiecki, the government addressed the commission's concerns in detail, it opened up for a dialogue with the EU, and parliament passed changes to the judicial overhaul.

Such tactical maneuvering echoes one deployed by Hungarian authorities in their dispute with the commission whereby they introduced small tweaks to controversial legislation, in order to achieve a compromise with the EU executive, yet ultimately achieve most of their political goals.

With Article 7 unlikely to go anywhere with some EU countries not keen to sanction Poland, the commission could be looking to settle for such a political compromise.

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