May 14, 2018 / 2:25 PM / 7 months ago

EU gives Poland new deadline for rule of law deal

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission on Monday gave Poland until late June to settle a dispute with the EU over the independence of its courts that threatens Warsaw’s future access to funding from the bloc.

FILE PHOTO: A participant holds flags of European Union and Poland during an anti-government protest, called 'Freedom March' and organised by opposition parties, in Warsaw, Poland May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

Frans Timmermans, the EU executive’s deputy chief, welcomed recent progress in negotiations with Warsaw but said more needed to be done to assuage concerns over democratic checks and balances in the largest ex-communist EU member state.

“I hope the Polish government will see that it has to take a few more steps for us to be able to declare that the systemic threat to the rule of law is no longer there,” Timmermans, who oversees the Polish dossier for the EU, told a news conference.

After updating European affairs ministers meeting in Brussels on the protracted dispute, he said the next such meeting, due on June 26, would be the make-or-break moment.

Timmermans said he hoped to be able to announce enough progress then to revoke the unprecedented Article 7 punishment procedure against Poland for flouting the rule of law.

“The main issue remains how much political control can you have to be able to say that the judiciary is independent. We have some concerns there,” he said, citing an early end to the terms of Supreme Court judges and other judges under new laws in Poland as one example of outstanding issues.

The Article 7 procedure could theoretically lead to Poland losing its EU voting rights. Poland’s ally Hungary has vowed to block such a move, but the procedure is still embarrassing for Warsaw and harms its ability to push its agenda in the EU.

Brussels is also awaiting the Polish parliament’s formal adoption of new amendments to already-enacted judicial reforms.

CONCESSIONS

Under these amendments, Poland’s supreme court would be more limited in its newly acquired ability to effectively overturn past verdicts, and the president - rather than the justice minister - would gain the right to appoint junior judges.

The concessions are aimed at assuaging EU concerns that the executive is amassing too much control over the judiciary.

Both tweaks still need to be approved by the upper chamber of parliament - which is dominated by the ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) - and signed into law by the president, who originates from the same party.

The moves mark a complete change of tone in Warsaw after two years of PiS vowing not to yield to EU “blackmail”.

The change of heart in Poland, the biggest beneficiary of EU funds, came as the bloc threatened to cut financing for states flouting democratic standards in its new budget for 2021-27.

“Poland is aiming for an agreement,” its foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, said in the southern Polish city of Katowice.

“We have to go on talking and explaining to find a legal formula to address these concerns... I understand the European Commission is of the same mind and will continue talks.”

Critics of the PiS government say the concessions do not go far enough and that the judicial overhaul has already damaged democracy in the country of 38 million people.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is seen during his visit in Warsaw, Poland May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

On Monday, the prime ministers of Poland and Hungary said they had similar positions on the EU’s next budget and said they opposed any cut in funds for their farmers.

Germany and France firmly back the Commission.

“We see progress in the rhetoric of Poland... But we now need progress in terms of substance. The rule of law is a binding and obligatory principle for all EU members,” Germany’s EU minister Michael Roth said in Brussels on Monday.

Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Wojciech Zurawski in Katowice, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones

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