June 21. 2024. 3:30

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EU move against Polish reforms stirs up parliamentary election race

Poland’s national conservative government has attacked EU legal action against its judicial reforms and courts as part of a “German plan to liquidate member states”.

Justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro has accused the European Commission of “threats and blackmail” for asking the European Court of Justice (CJEU) to examine two rulings from Poland’s constitutional court.

In an application to the CJEU last week the commission claims that two Polish constitutional rulings from 2021, in which Poland’s own constitution took precedence over EU law, “breached the general principles of autonomy, primacy, effectiveness, uniform application of Union law and the binding effect of rulings” of the European Court.

Despite repeated engagement with Warsaw on the matter, it said Poland’s reply did “not address the commission’s concerns”.

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The move is an escalation in a seven-year stand-off between the EU and the Polish government, lead by the national conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Since taking office in 2015 it has changed procedures for appointing and disciplining judges, moves it says were necessary to remove the last vestiges of old communist rule. Critics in Poland and around Europe see a concerted effort to undermine the rule of law by creating a politicised judiciary, dependent on the ruling party.

This latest twist is far more than just another round in a complex legal battle: it marks the failure of attempts last year to break the deadlock and an effective freeze on a €35 billion payout to Poland from the EU Covid recovery fund. That throws a wild card into Polish domestic politics in advance of parliamentary elections in September and increases growing tensions within the ruling nationalist coalition.

Those tensions were visible like never before last week when PiS passed a legal reform bill in the Sejm, the lower house of parliament.

While opposition parties – and legal critics – dismissed the bill as a halfhearted, last-minute attempt to meet EU demands on court reforms, junior PiS coalition partners attacked it as cow-towing to Brussels.

Even PiS, usually united behind its all-powerful but ageing chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is now divided. Leading party politicians, above all prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, are jockeying for attention in the PiS succession stakes for party leadership – motivated by a possible return to power.

Meanwhile, backbench PiS MPs are returning to face their voters with grim news that the government’s promised “Polish Deal” – largely funded by EU money – is now struggling. Warsaw has promised to fill the financing shortfall, but it may have to break some promises in an election year to invest in local transport and digital infrastructure, schools and renewable energy.

Above all the EU move has energised Poland’s justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro. Leader of the right-wing conservative United Poland (Solidarna Polska) party, PiS’s junior governing partner, he has pushed Poland’s most recent hardline positions, including an effective ban on abortion.

He has also taken a consistently hard line on the judicial standoff with the EU, attacking Mr Morawiecki and his party officials for being too accommodating towards the EU political establishment.

Now Mr Ziobrio hopes to steal further crucial support from PiS in the months ahead, framing the EU referrals to the CJEU as part of a long-term campaign to sideline Polish democracy and “create one, centralised state with the formal capital in Brussels and the real one in Berlin”.

Unlike PiS, which said the EU decision was regrettable but not unexpected, Mr Ziobro said that his United Poland “will never agree to sell Polish sovereignty for a piece of silver”.

[ Poland hits out at EU’s ‘foot-stamping bureaucrats’ ]

[ The Irish Times view on relations between the EU and Poland: new difficulties ]

Though Mr Ziobro has stolen its Eurosceptic clothes, PiS remains Poland’s most popular party. Even after two terms in office it enjoys support averaging about 36 per cent in polls.

“The EU move might have an effect on the election but it might not, too,” said Mr Eugenieusz Smolar, a Warsaw-based political analysts. “PiS has a 30 per cent base that will always support the party.”

Seeking the 40 per cent-plus it needs for a majority in the Sejm, PiS could join forces with the far-right Confederation alliance, on 7 per cent in polls, and still be short of a majority.

With EU funds now unlikely to flow, the party hopes that easing cost-of-living pressures – and its promise to double defence spending – will chime with voters when the campaign heats up in the spring and summer.

It remains unclear what effect the EU move will have on Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and European Council president.

He has returned from Brussels to domestic Polish politics and leadership of his liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO).

Currently polling 30 per cent in polls, Mr Tusk has faced a long-term campaign by PiS and government-friendly media, who frame him as an EU bureaucrat and stooge of Germany.