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EU executive tries to reassure angry parliament: no funds for Poland without reforms

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen looks over, next to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda at a news conference, during her visit to Poland to mark the acceptance of the country’s National Recove

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The EU’s chief executive sought to reassure angry European lawmakers on Tuesday that Poland would receive no COVID economic recovery funds before it has acted to reinstate independent courts, after having formally unlocked the money last week.

Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen succumbed to pressure from some European Union member states to reward Poland for hosting refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, after withholding executive approval on the funds for a year on the grounds that Warsaw has damaged democracy.

She told a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday: “No money will be disbursed, until these reforms are undertaken.” She was referring to Brussels’ demand that Poland dismantle a contentious disciplinary regime for judges.

Many European lawmakers appeared unconvinced by von der Leyen’s reassurances, criticising her announcement on a visit to Warsaw last week that 36 billion euros would be unlocked for Poland despite its failure to reinstate independent courts.

“Solidarity (with Ukraine) should not be used as a bargaining chip,” Iratxe Garcia Perez, Spanish head of the socialist faction in the European Parliament, said in comments echoed by many other lawmakers.

Von der Leyen’s announcement last week appeared to be a coup for Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has increasingly locked horns with EU headquarters in Brussels since coming to power in 2015.

The conservative, populist PiS has tightened the political noose around state and private media, curbed the rights of gays, migrants and women, and overhauled courts in the country of 38 million people, the largest one in the EU’s east.

At the heart of this particular dispute between Warsaw and the bloc is Poland’s disciplinary chamber that has punished some judges critical of the PiS government.

The EU’s top court, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) ordered the chamber dismantled for failing to prevent political meddling in what should be independent courts.

A European socialist lawmaker, Germany’s Katarina Barley, said many Polish courts were a mere “puppet” of PiS.

A senior liberal lawmaker, Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt, threatened to topple von der Leyen if Poland gets money before enacting all ECJ rulings.

Von der Leyen, who depends on the EU parliament’s support to pass policies, said Poland must dismantle the Disciplinary Chamber and replace it with a “substantially different” one.

The second condition for payments she set out was Warsaw changing its disciplinary regime in general, including to ensure it does not punish judges seeking clarifications from the ECJ.

Thirdly, judges already sanctioned by the standing disciplinary chamber must be able to have their cases reviewed.

EU executive tries to reassure angry parliament: no funds for Poland without reforms

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