5th Dec 2023

€70m deadline dawns on fines in Polish rule-of-law row

  • Warsaw is awash with speculation that Poland’s de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński, has lost patience with justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro (pictured) (Photo: Solidarna Polska)
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Poland is facing a deadline on Tuesday (11 January) to spell out to the EU Commission how it intends to bring its domestic judicial reforms into line with the order from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on how the government in Warsaw disciplines judges.

At stake are dozens of millions of euros, after the bloc's top court in October ordered Warsaw to pay a €1m-per-day fine for not suspending the disciplinary chamber of its Supreme Court, which the Luxembourg-based court has said was in violation of EU law.

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The Polish government has said several times it will abolish the chamber - but has not yet presented detailed plans.

The EU Commission wrote to Poland on 22 December to provide information on the steps the Warsaw government intends to take to comply with the court ruling of 14 July last year.

"In the absence of a response, the commission will conclude that Poland has decided not to fall in line with the court decision, in which case the commission will proceed with a further letter requesting the payments," a commission spokesman said Monday.

The payment is calculated from 3 November last year, when Poland was officially notified, so the sum is around €70m by now.

The commission will send "swiftly" letters on "call for payment", if the non-compliance continues, spokesman Christian Wigand said. The commission can decide on deadlines and the length of the procedure.

The EU executive also has the option to offset the financial penalty by withholding EU funds if Poland refuses to pay the fine. The commission said member states have always paid their fines.

The row is the latest episode in the rule-of-law crisis between the commission and Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came to power in 2015.

Such enforcement of court "interim orders" by the commission has only happened once before.

That case also involved Poland, where the ECJ last September ordered Poland to pay a €500,000-per-day fine for failing to comply with a ruling to shut down its Turow lignite mine, which the Czech Republic says is draining water reserves from the shared border region.

Interim orders are issued by the EU top court if it considers that the breach requires urgent action.

A final ruling by the EU's top court on Poland's disciplinary chamber comes later this year. The fine due following the interim measure will still apply even after the ruling.

Poland's justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro told the daily Rzeczpospolita on Sunday that the chamber should not be scrapped "by implementing the ruling" of the ECJ, which, he said, "exceeded its competences".

He said the commission's demands are used as an "excuse" so that the EU does not have to pay to Poland.

"It unlawfully issued a decision to suspend a part of the constitutional body of the state, which is the Supreme Court," said Ziobro, who runs the hardline eurosceptic coalition partner of PiS, the United Poland party.

In Warsaw, rumours have been ripe that the country's de facto ruler, PiS leader and deputy prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński has lost patience with Ziobro and wants early elections ahead of the scheduled 2023 autumn ballot.

Money linked to rule of law

There is another deadline looming over Poland and its political ally within the EU, Hungary.

On 17 November, the EU commission sent letters to Budapest and Warsaw as a preliminary step to the conditionality mechanism which links EU funds to the respect for the rule of law.

The two countries had two months to reply on the judicial and corruption concerns.

The Covid-19 recovery funds have been on hold to Poland and Hungary: the commission has so far not approved the €36bn plan for Poland or €7bn for Hungary over the rule-of-law concerns.

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