Poland and European Commission strike rule of law deal to unlock billions from pandemic recovery fund

Poland and European Commission strike rule of law deal to unlock billions from pandemic recovery fund
Poland's Ministry of Justice, led by United Poland chief Zbigniew Ziobro, says the deal is a mistake.
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw May 18, 2022

Poland has reached an agreement with the European Commission on revoking some elements of its controversial judiciary reform so as to unlock payouts from the EU’s pandemic recovery fund, it was reported on May 17.

Brussels has been holding up payouts from the fund, arguing that Poland’s rightwing government has engineered the country’s judiciary to compromise judges’ independence and impartiality, making them vulnerable to political pressure.

Poland stands to receive €35.4bn in grants and loans from the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), which the EU set up to support the bloc’s economies after the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

The deal was reportedly agreed upon late last week. According to Politico Europe, Poland will receive the money as soon as it overhauls the central and most controversial piece of the judiciary reform, the disciplinary regime for judges.

Doing so will entail removing the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court, the mainstay of the disciplinary regime. Poland will also reinstate judges dismissed under the regime.

Brussels will assess the real value of the changes before deciding ultimately on unlocking funds – a safeguarding mechanism after Poland dragged its feet about the overhaul, proposing cosmetic tweaks only.

Poland’s coalition government of Law and Justice (PiS) and United Poland is internally divided about having to meet the Commission’s conditions to release the funds.

For PiS, it appears a necessary step to end the deadlock just over a year before the general election. The money is likely to be a boon for the government ahead of the general election due in the autumn of 2023 if it can overcome woes like inflation and the growing cost of living.

United Poland’s chief Zbigniew Ziobro, who is the justice minister, said last week, however, that the deal was a mistake. “We are being subject to blackmail,” Ziobro told private radio RMF FM.

Some experts suggest that the deal to unlock the funds is just a fig leaf for the Commission to resolve the issue, which has become awkward in the context of Poland becoming the EU's key member state in the context of the war in Ukraine. Poland has taken in by far the most war refugees from Ukraine and is the hub of military and humanitarian help for the war-torn eastern country. 

“[The] Problem of course is that the … Commission may come up with easy to meet, nonsensical, partial "milestones" and/or pretend they are met on the back of cosmetic/fake changes, leaving systemic industrial-scale violation of EU rule of law requirements in place,” Laurent Pech, Professor of European Law at Middlesex University of London, tweeted.

The spat about the recovery fund might also have Poland change its mind about the global corporate tax reform, which Poland has been blocking, Politico Europe claimed.

Poland will apply for the first payout from the recovery fund as soon as July, Development and Technology Minister Waldemar Buda told the government broadcaster TVP on May 17.

Poland is looking to receive €2.8bn in grants and €1.3bn in loans this year, Buda said. He added that the funds would help finance the development of renewable energy sources, build more kindergartens, improve internet access, and upgrade railway infrastructure.