Polish president thwarts government’s effort to open EU cash tap quickly

Polish president thwarts government’s effort to open EU cash tap quickly
Duda's office had helped draft the changes but the bill went through substantial changes by PiS later in the legislative process. / bne IntelliNews
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw February 12, 2023

Polish President Andrzej Duda has delayed the Law and Justice (PiS) government’s plan to unlock €36bn of EU aid by sending a recently passed bill to cancel the most controversial provisions of the government’s court reform to be reviewed by the Constitutional Tribunal.

Poland needs the pandemic recovery fund money as its economic growth is sputtering, leaving PiS potentially vulnerable at the general election later this year. But the funds have been on hold as the European Commission considers the Polish government’s judiciary reforms a threat to the independence and impartiality of judges. 

The new legislation is an attempt by PiS to address the Commission’s grievances following an agreement struck with the EU executive in the past few months. The government touted it as all but a settled matter now that the bill was passed in the parliament last week. 

The bill is one of the so-called milestones, which Brussels demands Poland meet in order to alleviate the EU’s concerns over the state of rule of law in the country. That, in turn, would allow the pandemic recovery fund’s money to flow.

Duda’s decision has now put the swift end to the spat with Brussels in doubt.

“The government concluded … an agreement with the European Commission. But it needs to be said in all honesty that the agreement raises serious constitutional controversies!” Duda said in a televised address to the nation.

Duda's office had helped draft it but it went through substantial changes by PiS later in the legislative process.

“I am the guardian of the constitution and take care of the legal security of our citizens. Hence, I have decided to submit the law to the Constitutional Tribunal for a preventive control,” Duda also said.

“Preventive control” means that the legislation will not become binding until the Constitutional Tribunal gives out its verdict.

When the tribunal will do so is highly uncertain. One of the country’s top courts may be seen as the government’s tool for rubber-stamping controversial laws but it has been mired in in-fighting recently that observers say impairs its ability to review submitted cases quickly. 

At least six out of the tribunal’s 15 judges demanded recently that the president pick the tribune’s new head after - the six judges claimed - the term of the incumbent head Julia Przylebska ran its course in December. 

Any delay even announcing that the deal has been struck with the Commission potentially puts PiS in a precarious position in the election campaign currently gathering momentum. 

Poles are overwhelmingly pro-EU and the EU funds that have helped upgrade the country’s infrastructure have contributed to that favourable opinion. 

Duda hails from the PiS camp and has so far hardly stood up to it. The government’s early reaction to the president’s move was restrained.

The government’s spokesman Piotr Muller only said on Twitter that the government would “wait for the tribunal’s decision”.

The tribunal might not take up the issue earlier than in two months' time due to procedural issues alone, some observers say.