BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The new Polish government has stepped up efforts to address concerns in Brussels about civil rights ahead of a meeting on Wednesday at which the EU executive will review its moves to influence the constitutional court and the public broadcaster.
Prime Minister Beata Szydlo had a lengthy telephone call on Tuesday evening with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU officials said, and on Wednesday Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski will brief members of the European Parliament, which is due to debate Poland’s actions next week.
On Monday, officials said, another deputy minister in the Polish foreign ministry, Aleksander Stepkowski, visited Brussels to meet members of the Commission, the EU executive, which is considering whether to launch a procedure that could lead to sanctions on Warsaw if it is found to have breached European Union rules on upholding the rule of law in member states.
No details were available on Szydlo’s 45-minute conversation with Juncker, who has insisted that EU leaders are not “bashing Poland”. EU officials saw the discussions as a sign that both sides were intent on avoiding a damaging confrontation at a time when the bloc faces a number of crises testing its unity.
Critics accuse Polish nationalist Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Szydlo’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, of rolling back judicial independence and freedom of speech.Supporters say the government is entitled to uphold Catholic and national values and show its independence from Brussels.
Since its election in October, the government has ignored existing rules to pack the constitutional court with its appointees and changed the court’s voting system to curb its ability to censure legislation. It has also passed a law giving it direct control over the appointment of public media chiefs.
On Wednesday, the commissioners in charge of fundamental rights, justice and media - Frans Timmermans, Vera Jourova and Gunther Oettinger - will report to the 28-member Commission on Poland’s actions before it decides how to proceed.
A new legal instrument known as the “rule of law framework”, created by the EU in 2014 after being widely accused of failing to defend European liberal values in Hungary, gives Brussels the “nuclear option” of suspending EU voting rights and access to EU funds in case of a “systemic threat” to the rule of law.
However, EU officials say the Commission may hold fire for now and seek further explanations and commitments from Poland in talks and in writing before any formal decision.
Diplomats say any action by Brussels could be politically counterproductive, fuelling nationalist and Eurosceptic forces in central Europe and a “siege mentality” in Poland.
One senior EU official caught in the crossfire between Warsaw and Brussels spoke out on Tuesday to call on Europe to hold Poland’s leaders to account but spare ordinary Poles. Donald Tusk, who was a conservative, pro-EU prime minister of Poland and a bitter rival of Kaczynski, is now president of the European Council and chairs summits of EU leaders.
He told Socialist members of the European Parliament on Tuesday: “I hope that your words and your actions will help to mitigate the behavior of Kaczynski’s party.
“But at the same time, in no way should they negatively affect my country and of course Polish citizens.”
The new three-stage process provides a means of pressuring a country to amend its action before Brussels applies the “nuclear option”.
Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by James Dalgleish