Tensions over Poland's controversial judicial reforms were the main dish at a "working dinner" on Tuesday evening in Brussels, when Poland's new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, held his first meeting in that capacity with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Both sides were hoping that the discussions would help cool the row, which has prompted legal and political action by the commission against Poland.
Also in attendance was commission vice-president Franz Timmermans, who has had a few bruising encounters with Mr Morawiecki's predecessor, Beata Szydlo.
Last month Poland became the first EU member state to have an article 7 rule-of-law procedure launched against it by the European Commission. This followed the commission’s criticisms of the Polish government – led, since autumn 2015, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – as posing a threat to the rule of law.
The commission argues that 13 laws passed by parliament have undermined the independence of the judiciary and mean that the constitutionality of legislation can no longer be guaranteed.
Ultimately the invocation of article 7 is largely just politically embarrassing to the Polish government, both internationally and domestically, and could see Poland stripped of EU voting rights, but Hungary has guaranteed to block any sanctions.
Member states are likely to vote at a meeting scheduled at the end of February. In the first stage of the procedure, the decision on whether the Polish reforms constitute a “clear risk of a serious breach of rule of law” requires the support of 22 of the EU’s remaining 27 members to move to the next stage.
A subsequent vote to trigger sanctions against Poland – including, in the worst-case scenario, suspending the country's European Council voting rights – requires unanimity.
Three months to comply
The commission has given Poland three months to comply with its requirements, and the meeting on Tuesday night is part of an attempt by both sides to lower the volume of exchanges.
“We’re not at war with Poland”, the commission spokesman insisted to the press ahead of what he insisted would be “constructive” discussions.
Other punitive measures against Poland and Hungary have also been in the subtext of preliminary discussions in Brussels this week on the EU budget for 2020-26. Several speakers at a high-level commission-sponsored conference, including French European affairs minister Nathalie Loiseau, referred to the need to include in the new budget rules "conditionality" provisions that would tie cohesion funding to member states' adherence to minimum rule-of-law provisions.
The idea is hinted at in a commission paper on the future of the budget, but Mr Juncker indicated in a German interview on Tuesday his own reluctance to go down this road, which is also strongly opposed by many member states fearful of the precedent they believe it would set for commission “interference” in domestic politics.