Polish minister faces grilling from fellow EU ministers

Ministers from most member states insist article 7 process proceeds

Frans Timmermans (left) talks with Luxemburg’s minister for foreign affairs, Jean Asselborn, and Spain’s minister of foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, in Luxembourg on Tuesday. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Frans Timmermans (left) talks with Luxemburg’s minister for foreign affairs, Jean Asselborn, and Spain’s minister of foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, in Luxembourg on Tuesday. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

 

Poland had hoped that cosmetic changes to its controversial new judicial legislation might suffice to placate fellow EU member states concerned about its dilution of basic rule-of-law principles.

It was not to be, and on Tuesday the country’s foreign minister was forced to give a formal defence before fellow EU ministers in Luxembourg of the legislation that will see a purge of some 40 per cent the country’s supreme court as soon as July.

Poland faced a hearing in front of ministers under article 7 of the EU treaty in a process that can ultimately lead to sanctions against members states, including loss of voting rights, if a state is found to have breached the bloc’s core values.

Repeated visits to Warsaw by European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans have failed to extract significant concessions from the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government. He insisted two weeks ago that the amendments failed to address the commission’s main concerns.

Poland’s foreign minister, Konrad Szymanski, on Tuesday continued to maintain the judicial changes are needed to streamline a deeply inefficient system and rid Poland of vestiges of communism.

‘Political discounts’

Ministers from most member states were insistent that the article 7 process should proceed. “There can’t be any political discounts when it comes to the rule of law,” said Germany’s Michael Roth, arriving in Luxembourg. France and Germany were to present a joint stance and were firmly backed by Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok.

Ireland was among Poland’s critics with Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee strongly supportive of the commission’s position.

Although Hungary has threatened to veto any action against Poland – a formal vote is unlikely before the end of the year – the commission still has the option to refer the Polish legislation to the Court of Justice of the EU, which could order Poland to revise it.

Complicated

The Polish position may also be complicated as soon as Thursday by an opinion to be delivered in the Court of Justice on questions raised by the Irish High Court. At issue is whether a prisoner being held in an Irish jail can receive a fair trial under the new Polish judicial regime if he is handed over to its authorities.

A finding by the court’s advocate general, usually accepted by the full court, that a fair trial would not be possible could put all extraditions to Poland under the European arrest warrant system in jeopardy.

Assession

Ministers on Tuesday also discussed commission proposals to formally open talks with Macedonia and Albania on EU accession, expected to last several years.

Objections from France and the Netherlands, which say neither country has done enough to meet minimum governance standards or to curb corruption, prolonged discussions. A deal was eventually reached on the opening in June 2019 of the formal accession talks process for both countries if they continue to make progress on meeting the EU’s entrance requirements.