31st Mar 2023

EU orders Poland to pay €70m in fines

  • EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen with Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki at a previous EU summit (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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The EU Commission has called on Poland to pay around €70m in fines for failing to suspend the disciplinary regime for its judges that the European Court of Justice said was against EU law.

The EU executive sent its first call for payment on Wednesday (19 January) to Warsaw, after which Polish authorities have 45 days to pay.

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"After analysing the reply from Poland to a letter from 22 December, the European Commission has concluded that Poland failed to provide evidence that it complies with the order issued by the European Court of Justice on the 14 July last year," commission spokesman Christian Wigand said on Thursday (20 January).

"The EU Commission therefore sent the first call for payments yesterday, and requested Poland to pay the penalties covering the period from 3 November 2021 to 10 January 2022 included," he added.

The commission will keep on sending calls for payments each month.

Last October, the top EU court fined Poland for failing to halt the work of the Polish Supreme Court's disciplinary chamber pending a final verdict which is due to come later this year.

Critics and the EU court said the disciplinary system allows for political meddling in the Polish courts.

Despite the ruling, Poland's government has not suspended the chamber, and the court ordered daily fines of €1m.

The case is one of many disputes between the EU and Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came to power in 2015 and has since faced criticism over eroding democratic norms and judicial independence.

The Polish government has argued that its judicial overhaul was needed to make courts more efficient and rid them of communist-era stooges.

The PiS party and its coalition partner, United Poland, which is headed by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, also vowed it will not bow to what it calls EU blackmail.

The hardline eurosceptic Ziobro is at odds with the prime minister, the more moderate, Mateusz Morawiecki as the two battle over becoming the leading figure on the political right once the country's de facto ruler, PiS chief Jarosław Kaczyński leaves the main stage.

Morawiecki is also more inclined to find a compromise with the EU than his coalition partner.

Bleeding money

The standoff with the EU is beginning to cost money to Poland.

For one, the PiS government's dispute over judicial independence with the EU means that the commission has not approved the billions of euros in Covid-19 recovery funds to help an economic rebound.

And the payment order comes a day after the commission said it had also started the process of deducting millions of euros of payments to Poland in a separate court case.

Those daily €500,000 fines were ordered by the court after Warsaw ignored its ruling to close down a coal mine in Turow, close to the Czech Republic.

In its injunction, the court ruled in favor of the Czech government, which complained that the mine drains groundwater from villages on the Czech side of the border, while also causing dust and noise pollution.

The commission on Thursday said there have been three first calls for payment in that case between September and December.

"The commission has to go a step further as the 45 days plus 15 day deadline expired for the first call, and can proceed with the offsetting procedure," spokesman Balázs Ujvári said.

"The commission will identify appropriate payments against which the compensation can be made, and informs the Polish authorities, giving them 10 days to submit comments," he added.

Following that, commission will deduct the amount from the payment concerned.

By next Monday, Poland and Hungary (which has also under EU scrutiny for democratic backsliding) will have to answer the commission questions regarding rule of law in a preliminary move under the conditionality mechanism.

And this allows the bloc to suspend EU subsidies if it finds that a member states does not respect the rule of law in cases that can be linked with EU funds.

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