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25th Jun 2022

No money to Poland without rule of law, von der Leyen says

  • Poland's prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at the EU executive's HQ at a previous meeting (Photo: European Commission)
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EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday (7 June) pledged that no EU recovery funds will be sent to Poland before the Warsaw government reforms how it disciplines judges.

The EU commission last week approved Poland's recovery plan despite criticism that the nationalist Warsaw government had not moved on any of the conditions set by the EU, nor has it respected previous European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings on judicial independence.

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"[The commission's] three commitments must be fulfilled before any payment can be made," she said in a debate with MEPs in Strasbourg.

Von der Leyen, who came under criticism from some of her own commissioners, defended her executive's decision to approve the recovery fund for Poland.

Von der Leyen told MEPs that the commission will not let go of holding Poland responsible over rule-of-law issues.

"Agreeing to Poland's recovery plan does not stop any of the other procedures concerning the rule of law in Poland," von der Leyen said.

"Now we have movement in the right direction and leverage," she added.

Liberal Renew leader MEP Stéphane Séjourné said in the debate that approving the plan amounts to "a mistake yielding to blackmail on the part of the Polish government".

The commission and Poland's Law and Justice party led government have been at loggerheads over the rule of law. Poland has been under EU scrutiny since 2017 for breaching judicial independence.

In the recovery plan, the commission has set three so-called "milestones" or conditions for Poland to be able to unlock the recovery fund, out of which €23.9bn in grants and €11.5 bn in loans is allocated for Warsaw.

The first is to abolish the disciplinary chamber of judges, which experts and judges themselves have said the government used to silence critical judges, and set up an independent body in line with the ECJ ruling from last July.

"It must be substantially different from the current one to respond to the ECJ ruling," von der Leyen said.

The second is to reform the disciplinary regime, which the ECJ said last July breaks the bloc's rules. The commission insists that judges cannot be disciplined for instance for asking the ECJ's opinion in a case.

The third is to reinstate unlawfully dismissed judges. The commission wants Poland to allow judges who want to be reinstated to have a first hearing for assessment by the new disciplinary body within three months, and that the process should be completed in 12 months. All cases would have to be reviewed by the end of 2023.

The plan still needs to be approved by finance ministers, which is expected to happen at their next meeting on 17 June.

No 'silver bullet'

Commission officials also insisted the executive would not release any EU money before the first two conditions are complied with by Warsaw.

"If they are not complied with, not a single euro will reach Poland," a commission official said.

The official emphasised that the recovery fund is not a "silver bullet" to resolve all rule-of-law issues with Poland.

"The recovery and resilience facility is never meant to be a rule-o- law tool," an EU official said, adding that " I don't think the RRF [recovery fund] would be an extra instrument that would enable us to deal with all these other problems as well."

Commission officials also said there has been no decision to ban all payments to Poland.

Nevertheless, the commission has withheld €111m so far, because Poland had not paid the one-million euro per day fine the ECJ has set for Warsaw in October.

The commission has made five requests to Poland for the fine to be paid, none of which has led to any payment by the Warsaw government.

Poland has originally submitted their plan on how to use the recovery fund last May.

But negotiations took a different route in July after the ECJ ruling, when the commission worked out the three conditions based on the rulings for Poland to comply with.

Von der Leyen described the "milestones" as a "safety net" to the ECJ rulings.

EU approved Poland's recovery fund despite criticism

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is expected to travel to Warsaw on Thursday to announce the move — which comes after a year-long debate over the release of Covid-19 recovery financing.

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