EU steps up pressure on Warsaw in rule of law probe

EU steps up pressure on Warsaw in rule of law probe
Following the issue of the opinion, Beata Szydlo's government has two weeks to respond.
By bne IntelliNews June 2, 2016

Poland’s conflict with Brussels intensified again on June 1, as the European Commission decided to issue an “opinion” on Warsaw’s adherence to the rule of law, which the EU argues is under threat. The opinion is another step in the Commission’s probe that seeks to discipline the Polish government for paralysing the work of the country's Constitutional Tribunal.

The opinion comes after the Commission said the Law and Justice (PiS) government did not do enough to solve the constitutional crisis that has been raging in Poland since December. “Despite our best efforts we have not been able until now to find a solution,” the Commission’s Vice-President Frans Timmermans told reporters.

Warsaw and Brussels have been at odds over the Law & Justice (PiS) government’s efforts to swiftly consolidate its power in Poland, and in particular over a fight with the constitutional court that has all but frozen that check on its lawmaking. PiS's power grab has not only claimed the Constitutional Tribunal, but a number of other institutions, such as the public media, and virtually all state-controlled companies. 

PiS’ reaction to the opinion – the text of which was not made public – clearly indicates Warsaw will not back down, betting on the weakness of EU institutions and the stresses dogging the bloc.

“We do not agree with the Commission's interference with Poland’s internal matters, as it does not have any rights [to do so],” PiS’ spokeswoman Beata Mazurek said in the Polish parliament today. “We have been saying for a while now we are ready to compromise [on the constitutional dispute],” she added.

Following the issue of the opinion, the Polish government has two weeks now to respond. Given the party’s confrontational rhetoric, it seems unlikely it will want to listen to the Commission.

Should no solution to the constitutional crisis be found, the next step will be to issue a “recommendation” on how to solve the problem. If that fails, the so-called Article 7 Procedure could potentially be launched, which is a process that may lead to stripping Poland of its voting rights in the EU.

The procedure is often referred to as the “nuclear option" and has never yet been used. With the stability of the EU under enormous strain, that seems unlikely to change in this instance, a fact of which Poland is only too aware.

Warsaw is, however, under pressure as well. While economic growth is expected to come in at around 3.5% in 2016, it faltered a bit to reach only 3% in the first quarter on the back of contracting investments.

On top of that, the government’s lax fiscal policy is threatening to make the deficit balloon to over 3% of GDP again in 2017.

That, alongside politics, prompted Standard & Poor’s to cut Poland’s rating in mid-January. While Fitch and Moody’s did not follow, they issued warnings that PiS’ policies were credit negative, contributing to the overall deterioration of investment climate in Poland.