WARSAW (Reuters) - The mostly ex-communist countries that have joined the European Union in the past 15 years want Brussels to return more powers to national capitals, Poland’s prime minister said on Wednesday after hosting a summit of the 13 newcomers.
Mateusz Morawiecki also rejected the notion of a ‘multi-speed’ Europe that would allow groups of member states to press ahead with deeper cooperation in certain chosen policy areas.
His comments highlight a serious rift between many of the former eastern bloc states, which say they are made to feel like second-class EU members, and, on the other side, the European Commission and older club members such as France.
“Where it doesn’t have to, the European Union should leave member countries to their own competences... We say this with a single Central European voice,” Morawiecki told reporters, summing up the discussions held at the one-day Warsaw summit.
That message will be enshrined in a declaration and will be discussed at a pan-EU summit in the Romanian town of Sibiu on May 9. It comes just weeks before European Parliament elections in which populist, eurosceptic parties are expected to do well.
As the leaders of the 13 nations met in Warsaw on Wednesday, several hundred far-right supporters marched through the Polish capital in a protest rally that highlighted the growth of anti-immigrant, nationalist sentiment in the EU.
The EU has launched a legal procedure against Poland over reforms of its judicial system it says undermine the separation of power and the rule of law. Warsaw says the reforms make the system more effective and that the EU should not interfere.
While the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) is eurosceptic, it broadly supports Poland’s continued EU membership and has no plans to follow Britain in exiting the bloc.
Earlier on Wednesday, European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen warned Poland - a net beneficiary of the EU budget - against treating the EU as a “money machine” and also said its dispute with Brussels over the rule of law had weakened Warsaw’s position in the bloc.
Katainen spoke in Warsaw where he was representing the EU executive Commission at the summit.
In an op-ed published on Tuesday in POLITICO Europe entitled “Poland’s vision for Europe”, Morawiecki said the EU risked harming democracy in its push to integrate, calling such an approach “dangerously misguided”.
He said the EU should focus on strengthening its single market, bolstering its position against illegal immigration and avoiding dual standards of products and services between Western and Eastern Europe.
Hungary and Romania have also faced EU censure over what Brussels sees as their erosion of the rule of law, but Morawiecki warned against double standards.
“It is unacceptable for EU authorities to criticise some countries’ institutions for practices that do not raise objections elsewhere,” he wrote in the op-ed.
Poland is by far the largest of the countries that joined the EU in 2004. The others are Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta.
Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007 and Croatia in 2013.
Reporting by Joanna Plucinska and Alicja Ptak, Writing by Joanna Plucinska, Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Gareth Jones