BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union countries urged Poland's nationalist-minded government on Tuesday to address concerns that it is undermining democratic checks and balances, in a dispute that has highlighted growing tensions between western and eastern Europe.
In the first such debate among EU ministers of the 28-nation bloc, Poland accused Brussels of trying to impose its views by "diktat" but only Hungary took Warsaw's side.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, opened an unprecedented probe in January 2016 into perceived threats to the rule of law in Poland. The Commission's Vice President Frans Timmermans has spent more than a year exchanging letters and issuing recommendations that Warsaw has refused to heed.
"There was broad agreement around the table today that rule of law is a common responsibility and we should continue dialogue with Poland," Timmermans, a Dutchman, told reporters after the discussions.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said Warsaw shared the EU's commitment to the rule of law, but denied that its policies undermined it.
"The conclusions of the meeting are that the dialogue should continue, which we agree with, and that the EU is a union of values where the rule of law plays an important role. We are in complete agreement with that as well," Szymanski said.
"But we do not agree with interpretations presented by the European Commission... A one-sided expectation that we will implement recommendations is not dialogue but diktat."
Poland's conservative, eurosceptic ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), has brought the judiciary and public media under more direct state control, prompting concerns among political opponents and rights groups that it is infringing basic rights and freedoms and also the constitutional separation of powers.
Szymanski sought to present the dispute as one between Warsaw and the Commission, but a majority of member states including heavyweights Germany, France and Italy backed the Brussels-based executive.
Belgium and France suggested that Poland should face consequences if it does not change tack. Many said the case should be discussed among all EU states again.
"This is a clear signal. The Polish government should not think nobody cares and that they can get away with whatever," one EU diplomat said.
Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a close ally of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, backed Poland in Tuesday's debate, while the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania remained neutral. Britain, which hopes to retain good ties with Poland after it quits the EU, also avoided direct criticism.
Poland's dispute with the Commission is part of broader tensions between the more affluent western EU states such as Germany and the ex-communist easterners over issues such as immigration and the handling of asylum-seekers.
If Warsaw refuses to budge, the EU could theoretically strip it of voting rights in the bloc but this would require unanimity and Hungary would probably veto such a step.
But a prolonged impasse could reinforce western European states' push to deepen integration among themselves and also sap their willingness to pay generously for the development of eastern European economies and infrastructure.
Poland is now the biggest beneficiary of such spending.
Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly in Warsaw, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones