The European Union’s top official locked horns on Tuesday with Poland’s prime minister, arguing that a recent ruling from the country’s constitutional court challenging the supremacy of EU laws is a threat to the bloc’s foundations and will not be left unanswered.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki laid bare their differences of opinion on rule-of-law principles during a heated debate with EU politicians.
Ms von der Leyen accused Mr Morawiecki of trying to run away and escape the debate on the primacy of European law. He in turn insisted that Poles are in favour of the “power of the rule of law” and “don’t believe in blackmail or paternalistic attitudes” toward their country.
“We cannot and we will not allow our common values to be put at risk. The commission will act,” Ms von der Leyen said.
The issue is bound to dominate a two-day EU summit starting on Thursday where Mr Morawiecki will again have to face plenty of critics, including EU juggernauts Germany and France.
The two nations said that disregarding such EU rules would come at a cost.
“To think it is a simple piece of paper that you can tear up, from which you can choose what you like and what you don’t,” bristled France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune. “Those are values sovereignly chosen and sovereignly shared.”
His German counterpart, Michael Roth, agreed and added that “it is very important that we send a signal to Polish society. We are by the side of all those who stand up for Europe, and that is the overwhelming majority of Poles,” he said, highlighting how the nation still overwhelmingly backs EU membership.
Relations between Poland and the EU have been rocky for years and reached a new low earlier this month after the tribunal ruled that Polish laws take precedence over those of the 27-nation bloc, which Poland joined in 2004. The ruling escalated lingering tensions over democratic standards between Poland’s right-wing nationalist government and EU institutions in Brussels.
In her introduction, Ms von der Leyen said the Polish ruling challenges “the unity of the European legal order” and undermines the protection of judicial independence.
“The rule of law is the glue that binds our union together,” Ms von der Leyen said.
At the heart of the dispute is the question of who should have the most power within the bloc — each individual nation over its citizens or the EU institutions over the member nations. It was the prime mover behind the exit of Britain from the EU, and it has stirred passions in several Eastern and Central European nations like Poland and Hungary.
Mr Morawiecki described Poland as a nation that is being intimidated and attacked by an EU whose top court issues rulings that aim to take more and more power away from its nations. He insisted that the EU must remain a union of sovereign states until all its members agree by treaty to give up more of their own national powers.
“We are now seeing a creeping revolution taking place by way of verdicts of the European Court of Justice,” he said.
Mr Morawiecki defended his country’s stance that the highest law in Poland is the country’s constitution. He insisted that Poland abides by EU treaties and brushed off comment from opponents of his government who fear that the court’s ruling has put the country on a path to a possible exit from the EU.
Mr Morawiecki also said he sees double standards in the EU rulings on Poland’s changes to its judiciary, noting that each country has its own judicial system, with politicians electing judges in some cases.
The European Commission has several options to try to make Warsaw comply with EU law, notably by continuing to hold up the country’s access to billions of euros in European money to help revive its economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The EU’s executive arm can also start infringement procedures, or decide to activate a mechanism allowing the suspension of payments of EU money to a member country breaching the principles of the rule of law in a way that affects the bloc’s budget or financial interests.
Ms von der Leyen said she is open to compromise.
“I have always been a proponent of dialogue and I will always be,” she said. “This is a situation that can and must be resolved. And we want a strong Poland in a united Europe.”
The Polish tribunal majority ruling — in response to a case brought by Mr Morawiecki — said Poland’s EU membership did not give the European Court of Justice supreme legal authority and did not mean that Poland had shifted its legal sovereignty to the EU.
Mr Morawiecki asked for the review after the European Court of Justice ruled in March that Poland’s new regulations for appointing judges to the Supreme Court could violate EU law. The ruling obliged Poland’s government to discontinue the rules that gave politicians influence over judicial appointments. To date, Poland has not complied.
Last month, the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice to impose daily fines on Poland until it improves the functioning of the Polish Supreme Court and suspends the laws that were deemed to undermine judicial independence.
Mr Morawiecki told EU politicians during the debate that a disputed disciplinary chamber of Poland’s Supreme Court will be closed, because it did not meet expectations, without offering a clear timeline.