Von der Leyen says EU will close rule-of-law dispute with Poland

Von der Leyen says EU will close rule-of-law dispute with Poland
Back at the top table: French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz and Polish premier Donald Tusk. / bne IntelliNews
By Wojciech Kosc in Warsaw May 7, 2024

The European Union will formally close the six-year-long dispute over the rule of law in Poland,  European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on May 6.

Poland’s new government, in power since mid-December, has made a series of steps to address the EU’s grievances over the rule of law, which – Brussels has long said – the previous administration of Law and Justice (PiS) compromised by wide-ranging judiciary reforms in the name of national sovereignty and populist policies.

In response to PiS, the EU launched the so-called Article 7 procedure that could have suspended its voting rights, and also restricted Poland’s access to EU funds. The incumbent Polish government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk made reopening the funding tap a key campaign point ahead of elections last October.

“Today marks a new chapter for Poland. After more than six years, we believe that the Article 7 procedure can be closed,” von der Leyen said.

“I congratulate Prime Minister Tusk and his government on this important breakthrough. It is the result of their hard work and determined reform efforts. The ongoing restoration of the rule of law in Poland is great for the Polish people and for our Union as a whole. It is a testament to the resilience of the rule of law and democracy in Europe,” von der Leyen added.

Both von der Leyen and Tusk belong to the same European political group, the European People’s Party (EPP). Von der Leyen is standing in next month’s EU elections and is the EPP’s leading candidate to become the Commission president for a new term.

In February, Poland tabled a raft of legislative and other measures to undo changes in the judiciary forced by PiS.

Key assumptions are changes to a top court – the Constitutional Tribunal – and the judge-nominating body KRS that the Tusk government says PiS had engineered to become party tools. The Supreme Court, ordinary courts, and the prosecution service will also undergo reforms.

The fundamental problem with the system established by PiS is legal and hardly appealing to the wider public - unless one happens to be involved in a court case. 

That is because legally dubious judge nominations by the KRS provide premises to undermine any court decision that involved those nominations; this applies all the way up to the Supreme Court.

In one case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in 2021 that a Polish company could not get a fair trial because the Polish government illegally appointed a judge to the Constitutional Tribunal that had reviewed the company’s case.

Brussels began easing financial restrictions against Poland when the Tusk government presented its reform roadmap in February. In response, the Commission announced green-lighting the release of €137bn from the bloc’s pandemic recovery fund and the cohesion funding pool.

The European Union disbursed €6.3bn from the pandemic recovery fund to Poland in April.

The impact of the payout – and others to follow this year – will be noticeable in the economy by the end of this year, although significant growth is expected only in 2025, as time is needed for the investments to ramp up. 

The money is projected to boost Poland’s economic growth to 4%-5% next year.

“Great news from Brussels today! Thank you President von der Leyen for cooperation and support! Poland is consequently bringing back rule of law. We are determined and devoted to our common European values,” Poland’s Justice Minister Adam Bodnar said in a post on X.

The Commission will now present an analysis of the state of the rule of law in Poland at a General Affairs Council meeting on May 21.