Poland defiant as EU deadline on rule of law passes

Poland defiant as EU deadline on rule of law passes
Clearly confident Brussels is toothless, PM Szydlo has proved hard-nosed throughout the standoff with the EU
By bne IntelliNews October 28, 2016

Poland will not comply with the European Commission’s recommendations on the rule of law, which are centred on an ongoing crisis over the country's constitutional court, the prime minister said on October 27.

The comments came as the EU's three-month deadline to implement the recommendations passed. The euro-sceptic ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party insists the issue is a matter of national sovereignty, and clearly feels confident enough in the current climate across the bloc to confront Brussels head on.

The commission has been investigating since January whether Warsaw's actions comply with the EU’s principles of the rule of law. The probe was triggered by the ruling party's attempt to overhaul the Constitutional Tribunal (TK), which it claims is biased and would interfere with its reforms. Yet another new bill, this one apparently seeking to gain full control of the court, was presented the preceding day.

The government has dismissed outrage and large protests in Poland, as well as EU concerns. In July, the commission handed Poland a three month deadline to implement its demands. However, the EU executive's options to censure Poland look limited.

That has clearly been Warsaw's belief from the very start, and as the deadline passed Prime Minister Beata Szydlo offered an openly confrontational face. She said the government has told the commission it will act on none of the recommendations. 

“The European Commission’s questioning of legal solutions introduced in Poland is groundless and not understandable,” Szydlo told a news conference.

Meanwhile, her government has drafted another bill attempting to seal its control of the TK. The legislation would hand the ruling party practical control over who will head the TK after the term of the current head Andrzej Rzeplinski expires on December 19.

Poland’s defiance relies on the fact that the EU has few options of further official action. The next move would be a motion towards sanctioning Warsaw in line with the Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union. The 'nuclear option' under that article is to suspend a member state’s voting rights in the bloc, but it has never been used before. 

To sanction Poland would require unanimity among the EU member states. However, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban - a role model for many PiS policies - has openly stated he would veto any such move. Donald Tusk, the Polish president of the European Council, has admitted any agreement to punish Poland would be unlikely. The EU is battling a number of crises as well and may not be willing to start a new one with one of the largest member states.

It is behind the scenes, and on other issues, that Brussels and its partners will likely seek leverage now. There are several issues over which Poland depends on the West, not least the huge EU funds it recieves.

Poland is desperately searching for additional reassurance from Nato amidst rising tension with Russia. Meanwhile, the EU is busy negotiating with Russia over its dominance of the gas market in CEE, an issue on which Poland is becoming increasingly sensitive.