March 20, 2018 / 11:06 AM / 4 months ago

EU executive dismisses Poland's defence of contested judicial overhaul

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union executive on Tuesday dismissed Poland’s latest defence of court reforms that critics say weaken democracy, potentially paving the way for more clashes with Warsaw after weeks of some rapprochement.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen attends a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov following their meeting in Moscow, Russia February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Poland, the biggest ex-communist EU state, stands accused of subjecting its courts to more government control since the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party won power in late 2015.

The bloc has threatened unprecedented punishment, including of suspending Warsaw’s vote, if Poland does not restore the democratic checks and balances.

The European Commission’s deputy head, Frans Timmermans, debated the matter with EU ministers meeting in Brussels after Poland published a “white paper” defending the judicial changes.

The Commission has given Poland until Tuesday to restore the rule of law, or risk proceedings under the so-called Article 7 punishment mechanism.

“There was agreement across the table that this white paper is not the answer to the Commission’s recommendations,” Timmermans told a news conference after the meeting, adding that EU ministers would discuss the matter again next month.

“If this idea that you have the right to reform the judiciary... is understood as the right to put it under political control, then we have a problem.”

Warsaw says it was led by the need to improve efficiency and accountability by removing judges who served in the post-World War Two communist government, which collapsed in 1989.

Speaking to reporters after the ministerial session in Brussels, Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski reiterated the reforms posed no risk to the rule of law.

Warsaw has until the end of the day to come up with a formal answer to the Commission.

Poland’s state news agency PAP quoted the response as saying Warsaw rejects the criticism and refuses to retract the laws, but is ready to assess jointly with the Commission the results of the changes.

“TALKING FOR TALKINGS’ SAKE”

After a two-year feud between Warsaw and the more liberal, western EU states, Poland’s new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has reopened dialogue with the Brussels-based European Commission on the matter.

But Germany’s EU minister Michael Roth on Tuesday said Poland, which may risk losing billions of euros in EU handouts as an indirect consequence of the dispute, must not just play for time.

“Talking for talking’s sake is not enough and I hope that today... will give a clear signal that EU members support the European Commission in this essential matter,” Roth said.

The top sanction of stripping Poland of its voting rights is all but certain not to materialise as Warsaw’s ally Hungary - where the eurosceptic Prime Minister Viktor Orban has plenty of his own clashes with the EU - has vowed to block it.

But the sole fact that the EU has been debating it, albeit reluctantly, for months now causes damage to Poland’s reputation and highlights its growing isolation in the EU.

The bloc lacks hard tools to force Warsaw back into line on the courts specifically.

But, as ties between Poland and the wealthier net payers to the EU’s joint coffers sour, it raises the risk that they would retaliate by stripping Warsaw of some funding in bloc’s the next, long-term budget from 2021.

Speaking in Warsaw on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hoped Poland’s ruling nationalists would satisfy Europe’s concerns. Morawiecki responded that he hoped for a deal over the coming two months.

Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and the Warsaw bureau, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Peter Graff and Angus MacSwan

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