With the help of opposition parties, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) comfortably won a crucial vote in the parliament on January 11 that could open the way for the beleaguered government to receive much-needed billions from the EU’s pandemic recovery funds.
The vote was on a proposal tweaking the government’s judiciary reform so that the handling of the hugely controversial regime for disciplining judges is moved from the Supreme Court to the Supreme Court of Administration, a court that has largely avoided PiS’ attempts at political control.
The disciplinary regime is at the centre of the long-running conflict between Poland and the EU. Brussels says that it is the government’s tool to put political pressure on judges, undermining their independence and impartiality.
The EU, armed with judgments of its top court, has withheld payouts from the pandemic recovery fund – a total of €36bn in grants and loans – until Poland ensures that judges can work independently.
Poland's Cohesion Funds are also in danger of being held up over Warsaw's violations of fundamental rights, according to a Financial Times report in October. Poland is expecting to receive Cohesion funding worth €76.5bn from 2021 to 2027.
Going into the vote, PiS could not count on the loyalty of its junior coalition partner, a small right-wing party United Poland whose head, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, is one of the masterminds behind the government’s judiciary reform.
United Poland said that it would not vote through any changes, which it said smacked of an EU diktat in issues reserved for the member states to decide on.
That put PiS in a bind, with the party facing a double whammy of a coalition crisis and the prospect of losing the EU money just when the economy is about to cool - nearly to the point of recession - in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk appealed to the MPs to show “responsibility” and not reject the proposal – but also not to amend it, as that could nix the recently struck Poland - EU agreement over what changes are needed.
For its part, the opposition vowed to push the proposal past the first reading.
“We are giving this government a chance,” one of the leaders of the opposition, Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz from the agrarian party PSL, told a press conference shortly before the vote.
At the same time, the opposition pledged to exact concessions from PiS in further work in the parliament, especially making sure that the proposal is in line with the Polish constitution.
That could well derail the entire project since its central point – giving the Supreme Court of Administration disciplinary powers – could turn out unconstitutional.
PiS and most of the opposition parties – a total of 414 out of 460 MPs – voted against a proposal by another opposition party – the small far-right group Konfederacja – to reject the proposal in the first reading. PiS’ coalition partner United Poland also voted in favour of the rejection.
By voting hand in hand with PiS, the opposition ensured that the proposal will now be debated in detail in parliamentary committees before heading down to the opposition-held Senate.
That is assuming that the lower house ultimately passes it in the third reading, an uncertain outcome, given the opposition’s qualms about the constitutionality of the proposal and its apparent resolve not to give the government any more wiggle room.
The work on the proposal continues in the currently ongoing session of the parliament that ends on January 13.
PiS will not be sure of the final result of its efforts until after President Andrzej Duda eventually signs the bill into law – which is not a given, either.
Presidential officials said this month that the proposal by PiS could allow the questioning of some judicial nominations, which are one of the president’s powers. They also said that the president will make his decision once he sees the proposal in its final form on his desk.