EU and Polish flags. Picture: REUTERS/INTS KALNINS
EU and Polish flags. Picture: REUTERS/INTS KALNINS

Poland has accused the EU of acting in “bad faith” in their conflict over access to €36bn in pandemic aid and suggested the country may stop paying its membership fees to the bloc if the situation escalates.

Deputy justice minister Sebastian Kaleta said it is beyond the government’s power to restore suspended judges, one of three conditions the EU set for Poland to release the funds. He accused the EU’s executive of having double standards and said it should back off.

“If the situation escalates and Poland doesn’t receive funds, we will look for a way to recover this loss,” Kaleta said. “Already now, the topic of possibly suspending payment of our membership fee is being raised as part of the public debate. Such discussions are ongoing.”

The defiance from the ministry, which has spearheaded an overhaul of Poland’s courts, coincides with a formal deadline for the country to explain how it intends to change the system for disciplining judges. The country has already been fined €1m a day by the EU’s top court for failing to shutter the system.

Poland’s government has also vowed not to pay the court fines that also include €500,000 euros for failing to close a lignite mine in a separate spat with neighbouring Czech Republic. The EU’s largest eastern nation is a net recipient of EU funds, and in response to the refusal to pay what it owes, the EU is threatening to withhold budget payments, which are separate from the pandemic aid, to cover the unpaid bills.   

Poland has promised to dismantle the judicial disciplinary mechanism, and the justice ministry is pushing for the change to be a part of a wider revamp that would restructure the judiciary in a plan expected to be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Kaleta said the changes have effectively been ready since 2018 and the ministry is waiting for a green light from Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

“So far the prime minister has conducted talks with the European Commission in good faith, while everything now suggests the commission is acting in bad faith,” Kaleta said. 

Bad cop

The justice ministry has for years played the role of bad cop to Morawiecki’s more conciliatory approach in relations with Brussels. But the prime minister has toughened his rhetoric in recent weeks, warning Brussels against trying to instigate a “third world war” over access to funds.

The EU’s top court said the system, which allows for judges to be punished for their rulings, “is not protected from the direct or indirect influence” of politicians.

Poland has sparred with the EU over the courts since the ruling nationalists first took power in 2015. In October, the country’s top court, stacked with government loyalists, ruled the EU has no right to interfere in the Polish justice system.  

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen offered a way out of the standoff by saying Poland needs to dismantle the chamber as well as “end or reform” a disciplinary regime for judges and start reinstating those who were fired. 

Kaleta said the commission is effectively asking the government to undermine judicial independence. He said suspended judges were frequently found guilty of crimes such as rape, shoplifting and drunk-driving.

“In every country, judges are judges, not politicians,” he said. “I don’t see any reason to change this system under blackmail from the European Commission.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

subscribe

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.