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Poland considers dispute with EU over rule of law closed

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland considers its dispute with the European Commission about the country’s rule of law closed, its foreign minister said on Tuesday, leaving Brussels with a tough decision on whether to attempt to punish Warsaw.

Poland's Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski speaks during a news briefing with his Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Klimkin (not seen) in Kiev, Ukraine, September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

The Commission, the EU’s executive body, gave Poland a deadline to implement measures it deems essential after the eurosceptic Warsaw government made a series of appointments and reforms Brussels says weaken the independence of the judiciary.

Poland sent a letter to the Commission on Monday insisting its actions had conformed with European standards.

“I expect that the matter will be closed,” Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told state-run radio Trojka on Tuesday.

“We explained comprehensively what happened in Poland, how the reforms relating to the Constitutional Court have been implemented,” he added.

In theory, the Commission could now move to strip Poland of its voting rights in the EU under article seven of the treaty - an option recommended on Tuesday by a human rights group - but Poland’s ally Hungary has indicated it would veto such a step.

The Commission is expected to examine the Polish government’s letter responding to its concerns on Wednesday.

It will have to weigh up defending what it sees as core principles of EU membership with prolonging a dispute with a major member state at a time when a range of challenges including a migrant crisis and Britain’s impending exit already threaten the bloc’s unity.

Tensions between Warsaw and Brussels have grown steadily since the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party swept to power in late 2015 and moved to change the way rulings are made at the top court and to exert more control over state prosecutors.

One rights group, Reporters without Borders, said on Tuesday the Commission should not back down in its dispute with Warsaw.

“If the EU does not trigger the Article 7 (of the treaty), it will betray its own values,” Christophe Deloire, the group’s secretary-general, said at a news conference in Warsaw.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a close EU ally of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has signalled he would block any attempts to sanction Poland.

The EU has accused Orban of undermining the rule of law and democratic standards in Hungary but has done little to sanction his government since it came to power in 2010.

Additional reporting in Brussels by Alastair MacDonald and Jan Strupczewski; Writing by Lidia Kelly; editing by Gareth Jones