EU leaders bid to talk down Poland from challenge to legal order

Ireland outspoken on issue as fellow member states try to de-escalate row

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that Ireland is "extremely disappointed" over a recent court ruling in Poland stating that the Polish constitution trumps EU law, adding that Ireland "believes in the primacy" of European law. Video: EU Commission

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European Union leaders attempted to talk Poland down from an audacious challenge to the EU’s legal order at a tense summit in Brussels on Thursday that grappled with soaring energy costs and the sensitive issue of migration.

Ireland was the most outspoken EU state on rule of law ahead of the summit, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin declaring that Poland had “crossed a line” and delivered a “slap in the face” to countries that backed a Covid-19 rescue fund from which the country is set to richly benefit.

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki mounted a defence of his government’s position at the gathering of the leaders, and repeated a vow not to give in to EU “blackmail”.

Warsaw enjoyed the staunch support of ally Hungary, which has also been the focus of concerns about creeping authoritarianism and the erosion of democracy.

“Poland? The best country in Europe,” Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban declared on arrival to the summit, before accusing the EU institutions of exceeding their powers, and fellow member states of mounting a “witch hunt in Europe against Poland”.

The discussion was held without notes being recorded – a step usually taken for the most sensitive of issues, and seen as a way to prevent details of the debate leaking and deepening division over the issue.

Playing up conflict

While Ireland firmly stated deep concerns about the issue, several countries were reluctant to directly confront Poland out of caution that it would ultimately help Mr Morawiecki’s strategy of playing up conflict with the EU for a nationalistic domestic support base.

Outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel, a long-time peacemaker with the EU’s eastern member states, acknowledged that the issue of the primacy of EU law went to the “core of the European Union’s existence”.

But she used her 107th and probably final appearance at a European Council meeting to reiterate a call for dialogue and de-escalation. “We need to find ways and means to come back together here,” she said.

Yet behind the scenes there is a resolve that the European Commission will take action, including by using a new rule that could potentially cut off EU funds to Poland if a lack of rule of law can be shown to affect the union’s financial interests.

Officials believe the tool can be powerfully effective if used correctly, and stress the need to gather a water-tight case before initiating an action to ensure it is impervious to challenge, with some work already under way.

Several leaders expressed hope, however, that ultimately it need not come to that, and that Poland would voluntarily change course through dialogue and a genuine commitment to the values of the EU.

It would be “a shame if people only gave in when there is money involved. Europe is also values and rules . . . if it all works only with money, then I think we also have a moral problem,” Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel said.

Parliament pressure

The European Parliament has heaped pressure on the European Commission and EU leaders to speed up action with a landslide majority of MEPs backing a vote to condemn Poland’s challenges to the union’s legal order. 

“Never before has the union been called into question so radically,” European Parliament president David Sassoli wrote in a letter presented to the leaders as the summit began.

A sprawling discussion about the problem of high energy prices took up much of the first day of the summit, with some eastern states using the issue to attack the EU’s climate ambitions and France pushing for nuclear power to be deemed a green fuel.

On Friday, the discussion will turn to another political hot potato: migration.