EU approves Polish recovery plan, but no payouts before judiciary fixed

3 minute read

European Union and Poland's flags flutter at the Orlen refinery in Mazeikiai, Lithuania April 5, 2019. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

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BRUSSELS, June 1 (Reuters) - The European Commission on Wednesday approved billions of euros in COVID-19 economic recovery funds for Poland, but the money will not flow until Warsaw makes reforms to the judiciary, the EU executive arm said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will travel to Warsaw on Thursday to announce the deal, under which Poland is to get 23.9 billion euros in grants and 11.5 billion euros in cheap loans over several years.

"The European Commission has today given a positive assessment of Poland's recovery and resilience plan," the Commission said in a statement.

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But the Commission said the plan included milestones related to important aspects of the independence of the judiciary and which had to be put in place for the recovery plan to be effective.

"Poland needs to demonstrate that these milestones are fulfilled before any disbursement can be made," the Commission statement said.

The Commission has long been at loggerheads with Poland's ruling nationalists, accusing them of undercutting democracy, and froze Warsaw's access to the recovery money until it reverses some of the changes they made to the country's judiciary.

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party created a disciplinary chamber for judges that the top EU court struck down as illegal because it fails to provide safeguards against political meddling.

In power since 2015, PiS has also put media and NGOs under more state control, restricted the rights of women, gays and migrants, drawing criticism from rights groups and international watchdogs.

Warsaw's ties with the Commission grew increasingly strained but the calculus changed after Russia's February invasion of Ukraine, a neighbour of Poland. Warsaw won praise for taking in some 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees. The Commission since came under pressure to unlock the funds.

To clear the way, Poland's parliament voted last Thursday in favour of a bill that would replace the disciplinary chamber for judges with a new body. read more

Many lawyers from non-government organisations see the changes, which have yet to complete the full legislative path, as insufficiently addressing concerns.

To unlock disbursements Poland must also start reinstalling judges who had been dismissed by the contested chamber before any money is actually paid out, EU officials said.

However, the Renew group, the liberal faction within the European Parliament, criticised rewarding Poland while the PiS government was "consistently trashing...the rule of law"

"We should not accept merely small, inadequate cosmetic changes to Poland's seriously politicised legal system in exchange for the EU funds," Renew said in a statement.

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Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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