Polish lawmakers seek to unlock EU COVID cash with court reform

4 minute read

People walk outside the Supreme Court in Warsaw, Poland October 23, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

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  • Rule of law dispute with EU threatens access to funds
  • Ruling coalition divided over how to reform court
  • Largest party sees dispute as distraction from Ukraine

WARSAW, March 22 (Reuters) - Poland's parliament will try to thrash out a compromise on Wednesday over reforms to the Supreme Court that could unlock 36 billion euros of EU COVID-recovery grants and loans being withheld due to a dispute over judicial independence.

The debate will be a test of whether the coalition can agree on a way forward for reforms that for many have come to define its time in office - and that have caused a dispute which the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) says is now a distraction from the crisis in Ukraine and at the borders.

The rule-of-law dispute currently centres on the Disciplinary Chamber of the Polish Supreme Court.

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The EU's top court has demanded Poland disband the chamber and has imposed fines of 1 million euros a day for failing to do so, while the head of the European Commission has said Poland will have to undo the system to get the COVID cash.

The Commission has said that any new law must not allow for political meddling in the judiciary and that judges who have been suspended or dismissed must be reinstated. read more

If the dispute is not resolved Poland could lose out on 23.9 billion euros in recovery grants and 12.1 billion in cheap loans. It could also be blocked from accessing funds from the bloc's budget under a rule of law conditionality mechanism. read more

In addition to two opposition bills that are unlikely to gain traction, parliament will discuss proposals from government ally President Andrzej Duda, from lawmakers of PiS - the largest ruling party - and from the arch-conservative United Poland, the party of Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro.

"I think that we will talk, a compromise is always possible," said Marek Ast, one of the lawmakers behind the PiS proposals.

"Taking into consideration that the president's project was submitted first ... the (PiS) lawmakers' bill will probably supplement these solutions and proposals included in the presidential project."

Critics of PiS say judicial reforms introduced since it came to power in 2015 aim to increase political control over the courts and persecute those who speak out against the changes.

PiS say the reforms target rogue judges who see themselves as above the law while simultaneously wiping away a residue of communist-era influence from the judicial system.

UKRAINE CRISIS

More recently, it has argued that the rule of law dispute with the European Union is an unnecessary distraction and that Brussels should focus on the conflict in Ukraine.

Poland has taken in more than 2.1 million people and while some plan to head elsewhere, the influx has left public services struggling to cope. read more

For the ultra conservative United Poland junior coalition partner, the war has highlighted the fact that Poland has been right before and should stick to its guns on judicial reform.

"We were accused of being Russophobic in the EU and right now the whole world sees that we were right about warning the world against (Russian President Vladimir) Putin," Deputy Justice Minister Sebastian Kaleta told Reuters.

"On the matter of the rule of law we feel the same. We feel the allegations against Poland are false and we do not want the world to learn about it when it's too late."

Critics meanwhile say it makes defending the principles of judicial independence in the EU even more important.

"You can't fight Putin on the one hand and organise the Putinisation of the EU legal order on the other," said Laurent Pech, professor of European Law at Middlesex University, London.

Under Duda's proposals, the Disciplinary Chamber would be scrapped and disciplinary cases would be heard by a new panel of 11 Supreme Court judges chosen through a draw. read more

Under the PiS lawmakers' proposal, the Disciplinary Chamber would remain, but only as a panel for prosecutors, advocates and other legal professions. Disciplinary proceedings against judges would be heard by three or seven Supreme Court judges appointed by draw to a particular case. read more

Pech said the "cosmetic" proposals did not tackle the core problem of the politicisation of the judiciary and did not comply with the judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union.

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Reporting by Alan Charlish, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Pawel Florkiewicz; Editing by Alison Williams

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