February 27, 2018 / 9:00 AM / 7 months ago

EU founders tell Poland time running out to restore rule of law

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Western EU states told Poland on Tuesday that time was running out for it to address concerns in a dispute over democratic freedoms, but held off from further action as a deadline for a response from Warsaw approaches.

European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva address a joint news conference during a European Union's General Affairs Council in Brussels, Belgium, February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

In a long-running and bruising clash, the executive European Commission has accused Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party of undermining the rule of law with reforms to the judiciary and state media since taking power in late 2015.

After repeatedly declining to backtrack on its judicial reforms, Warsaw has now sat down to negotiations as parallel talks on the bloc’s next joint budget starting in 2021 get under way.

EU ministers held their third debate on the matter in Brussels on Tuesday, with Germany and France warning Poland against using discussions with the Commission as a smokescreen.

“The clock is ticking. The European Commission and a series of EU members are very concerned about the rule of law situation, particularly the independence of the judiciary,” said Michael Roth, Germany’s minister for EU affairs.

“In recent days I have noticed positive signals of willingness (from Poland) to engage in dialogue. That’s an important point, but at the end it’s not about promises but concrete acts,” Roth told reporters.

Brussels has recommended that the bloc launch an unprecedented Article 7 punitive procedure against Warsaw - which could lead to suspending Poland’s voting rights in the EU - unless it concedes ground by March 20.

German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth attends a European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

“JUDICIARY SHOULD BE INDEPENDENT”

Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said Warsaw would soon publish an explanation of some 13 laws PiS has passed on the court system to demonstrate to other EU states it acted to rid Poland of the vestiges of communist rule.

“We expect member states to make their own assessment of this situation and really consider whether there is any serious risk of a serious breach of the rule of law. In our view, there is no such serious risk,” he said.

The Commission and the bloc’s founding members - which include the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy as well as France and Germany - say the PiS measures risk undermining the EU’s internal market and judicial cooperation.

“The need for reform of the judiciary can never be an excuse to enhance political control over the judiciary. The judiciary should be independent. The separation of powers is a fundamental principle,” Commission deputy head Frans Timmermans said.

Timmermans said he would assess the new Polish document when it comes to see whether it was promising enough to continue talks, or else ask EU states to take action against Warsaw.

Stripping Poland of its voting rights is highly unlikely to occur because it would require unanimity, and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has promised to block any such action against his Polish ally.

But the dispute could badly hurt Poland if other member states move to cut vital funding in the looming budget talks. Poland is currently the biggest beneficiary of the EU budget.

Senior Polish officials have hinted Warsaw could tweak some of the new judiciary laws, though details have yet to be agreed.

The ministerial session on Tuesday ran for longer than planned, suggesting a lively discussion. Some of Poland’s fellow ex-communist neighbours said the Commission should not push Warsaw too hard.

“Today is no time for decisions,” said Deputy Prime Minister Ekaterina Zakharieva of Bulgaria, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, adding that Poland’s willingness to enter again into talks with Brussels represented “huge progress”.

Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek, Philip Blenkinsop and Alastair Macdonald; editing by Gareth Jones

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