EU ready to fight back against Polish attack on bloc’s legal order

Fiery scenes at European Parliament as opposing sides entrench positions in speeches

Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled last week that parts of EU law are incompatible with the Polish constitution. Photograph: Ronald Wittek/Pool/AFP via Getty

Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled last week that parts of EU law are incompatible with the Polish constitution. Photograph: Ronald Wittek/Pool/AFP via Getty

Your Web Browser may be out of date. If you are using Internet Explorer 9, 10 or 11 our Audio player will not work properly.
For a better experience use Google Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge.

 

Brussels is preparing to retaliate against Poland for its challenge to the supremacy of EU law, which European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday was calling “into question the foundations of the European Union”.

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki escalated tensions over the issue with a defiant speech to the European Parliament in which he insisted its constitution supersedes EU law, a position that opposition parties warn puts Poland on track for an exit from the EU despite high support for membership among its public.

“The highest law in the EU is the constitution of a country,” Mr Morawiecki told MEPs in a speech that laid out a litany of grievances against the union, accusing it of “blackmail” and of treating Poland unfairly compared with other member states.

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki: ‘EU competencies have clear boundaries.’ Photograph: Ronald Wittek/Pool/EPA
Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki: ‘EU competencies have clear boundaries.’ Photograph: Ronald Wittek/Pool/EPA

Shouts and applause from some Polish and far-right MEPs rang out in the chamber at the end of his speech, which drew a furious response from many MEPs, who pointed out that all EU members voluntarily agree to common rules on joining the union.

“You are fighting the courts because you want to rule with impunity,” Polish opposition MEP Bartosz Arlukowicz told Mr Morawiecki in a fiery response that concluded the debate. “We will not allow you to steal the dreams of millions of Poles.”

Retaliatory action

A majority of MEPs called on the European Commission to use all tools at its disposal to bring Warsaw into line and defend the rule of law and the rights of Polish citizens.

The commission is expected to start retaliatory action imminently in response to Warsaw’s repeated flouting of European Court of Justice rulings, which have indicated its ruling Law and Justice party compromised the judicial system by stacking courts with party loyalists.

The long-running stand-off culminated in a ruling by Poland’s constitutional court earlier this month that backed up the government’s position that the Polish constitution trumps EU law.

The commission is currently holding back billions of euro in Covid-19 stimulus funds from Poland due to rule-of-law concerns and has three tools it can use to bring the government into line, Dr von der Leyen told the chamber.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Photograph: Ronald Wittek via AP
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Photograph: Ronald Wittek via AP

These include a sanction that could block Poland from receiving EU funds, a legal challenge and a process to ultimately strip Poland of its EU membership rights – which depends on the support of all other member states.

“This ruling calls into question the foundations of the European Union. It is a direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order,” Dr von der Leyen said in a speech that mixed warnings with praise for Poland’s history of democratic struggle and contributions to the EU project.

“We cannot and will not allow our common values to be put at risk. The commission will act, and the options are all known,” she said.

Brussels meeting

The issue is set to overshadow a meeting of EU national leaders in Brussels this week, raising the prospect of a repeat of a furious June summit in which 25 member states were aligned in opposition to Poland and its ally Hungary, which is also accused of democratic backsliding, over the issue of LGBT rights.

“Being a democratic country is a condition of membership of the European Union,” Minister of State for European Affairs Thomas Byrne said after discussing the issue with EU counterparts in Luxembourg.

Polish ambassadors were sent on a diplomatic offensive to defend Warsaw’s position as the showdown loomed.

“In the treaties we delegated a lot of competencies to the EU, but not everything,” Poland’s ambassador to Ireland, Anna Sochanska, said, adding that the Polish government was convinced it was in the right. “It will not give up.”