WARSAW/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Poland’s new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired several senior ministers and visited Brussels on Tuesday in an effort to patch up relations with the European Union, but said he would not unwind the country’s most-contested judicial reforms.
Facing unprecedented EU legal action over accusations of backsliding on democracy by politicizing Polish courts, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party may seek to ease tensions in other areas like environmental policy or defense.
Shortly after announcing the government changes, Morawiecki left for his first face-to-face talks with officials in Brussels, the second foreign capital he has visited so far as prime minister after Budapest.
“Our intention is to make the system more effective, more just, more objective,” Morawiecki told a news conference defending PiS moves on the courts after nearly three hours of talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker Jean-Claude Juncker.
A joint statement with the EU’s executive said the dinner was “friendly” and included a “detailed discussion” on the rule of law issues in Poland. The two leaders would meet again “with the view to making progress by the end of February.”
The Polish government changes also come as the EU embarks on negotiations on a new seven-year budget that will decide which member states get what out of the bloc’s coffers - with Poland currently the biggest net recipient.
Among those who lost their posts on Tuesday was the staunchly conservative Environment Minister Jan Szyszko, who has spearheaded large-scale logging in an ancient forest that prompted action by the European Court of Justice.
Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz, a former anti-communist crusader facing criticism over delays in modernizing the army as well as conflicts with top generals, and Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski - seen as petulant and ineffective in Brussels - were also dismissed.
The reshuffle follows the appointment of former banker and finance minister Morawiecki as prime minister last month at the midpoint of the parliamentary term. PiS faces local elections in late 2018 and legislative and presidential ballots in 2019-20.
“The new (government) should help us build a sovereign Poland within a strong Europe, a Europe of homelands,” Morawiecki said earlier in Warsaw in announcing the new appointments.
The feud between Brussels and Warsaw’s eurosceptic government is a key element in mounting tensions between wealthier western EU members and the ex-communist east, amid a wider debate over the bloc’s future provoked by Brexit.
Many Westerners are keen for EU countries to integrate further in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave, but this is strongly opposed by eastern members like Poland and Hungary.
Despite the warmer tone, Morawiecki made clear he would not give up on the courts overhaul, which, together with Warsaw’s refusal to host refugees, is central in the row with Brussels.
Rights groups, western EU states and Poland’s political opposition say the government is undercutting the courts’ independence. PiS says the reforms are needed because the country is steeped in power structures dating from the post-war communist era.
In another sign that government policy is unlikely to change, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro kept his job on Tuesday, and new rules give him powers to appoint the heads of lower-level courts as well as oversight over prosecutors.
EU states will on Feb. 27 look into whether Poland is backsliding on democracy, though the top sanction of suspending Poland’s EU voting rights is unlikely to materialize, as Hungary has said it would block any such punishment.
The 27 are likely to ask Warsaw to make amends, issuing recommendations echoing those by Brussels that the PiS has so far ignored, and giving it some time to react.
France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy are among EU states saying Warsaw should be not allowed to get away with what they see as an assault on the bloc’s core values.
Szyszko had attracted widespread criticism domestically over moves to lift limits on hunting as well as for allowing massive logging in areas of Poland. The dismissed health minister has struggled to contain protests by medical staff in recent months.
The outgoing, hardline defense chief has been the PiS investigator into the 2010 plane crash over Russia that killed President Lech Kaczynski - the twin brother of current party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski - and dozens of other senior Polish officials.
Kaczynski and Macierewicz believe the crash may have been caused by foul play and not pilot error, which was the official cause returned by a investigation by the previous centrist government.
Reporting by Pawel Sobczak and Lidia Kelly in Warsaw and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; editing by Andrew Roche, G Crosse