Poland responded defiantly on February 20 to the European Commission’s deadline on its demand to solve the prolonged crisis over the functioning of the country's Constitutional Tribunal (TK).
Given two extra months in December to restore the independence of the TK, Poland maintained its position from October, when it was first asked to back down from its overhaul of the make-up and work of the tribunal. A series of controversial new bills regulating the work of the tribunal have not nullified the TK’s position in the Polish system of checks and balances, but have created "normal conditions for the functioning of the TK", Poland claimed in a statement published by the foreign ministry.
The response puts the ball back in Brussels' court. However, the EU executive's options are limited, despite official rhetoric from Vice-President Jan Timmermans from last week that "the EU will not drop the issue".
The commission says Jarosław Kaczynski's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has trampled on the TK’s independence in order to keep it from blocking the reforms the government is carrying out. After a year-long tussle, PiS finally took full control over the TK after its chairman Andrzej Rzeplinski stepped down in December, replaced by a PiS nominee.
PiS dealings with the TK have caused widespread outrage within the Polish opposition as well as in the EU. The launch of the investigation has dented Poland’s position in the EU initially, but the commission’s firepower appears to be weakening.
The standoff leaves Brussels with little choice but to back off or start preparing sanctions against Warsaw. However, the commission is very unlikely to gather the required unanimous support in the EU for that course; Hungary has pledged to veto any such move.
The EU's credibility is on the line. The bloc clearly does not need another crisis, which taking a road to sanctions - that is set to be blocked anyway - would risk. Equally, however, Brussels cannot simply allow Poland to abuse its laws without a reaction, encouraging critics that want to undermine the bloc and its liberal democratic ethos.
Poland is aware of its strong position, and in its response to the February 20 deadline Warsaw hit out at commission Vice-President Jans Timmermans, who is in charge of the probe.
"The dialogue with the European Commission should abide by such principles as objectivism, respect for sovereignty, subsidiarity and national identity. Recent comments by ... Timmermans, in which he calls on other member states to form a common front with the European Commission against Poland, are a flagrant violation of these principles," the ministry stated.
"Poland interprets the actions and comments made by Frans Timmermans as politically motivated and serving to stigmatise one of the member states. We call on the vice-president of the European Commission to stop such acts," the ministry concluded.
Timmermans and Poland’s Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski engaged in a heated exchange last week over the investigation. Waszczykowski told Timmermans during a security conference in Munich that the TK issue was Poland’s internal affair only. “May we be allowed to respect our constitution?” the Pole asked.
“That’s what we are asking you for,” replied Timmermans, to which Waszczykowski fired back with “Please allow us to respect our constitution, not your vision of what our constitution is.”