After seven years of verbal warfare between Warsaw and Brussels, the outbreak of actual warfare in Europe soon prompted a hasty reality check - and search for political compromise. Arguments over whether Poland’s reforms of its court system met EU legal standards paled given the human tragedy unfolding next door in Ukraine.
Poland became an important humanitarian player for refugees and a crucial military hub in Ukraine’s battle with Russia – and was rewarded with a visit last May from US President Joe Biden.
This was when European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen decided it was a politically opportune time to settle the EU’s legal rows with Warsaw. She travelled to the Polish capital in June wielding a sizeable political carrot: the promise of nearly €36 billion in cash and loans, Poland’s share of the Covid “Recovery and Resilience Facility” set up to counter the Covid-19 pandemic.
She set three conditions for payout: the abolition of a disciplinary body for judges; the reinstatement of those suspended; and a guarantee of the right of judges to call on the European Court of Justice (CJEU) if needed, without fear of penalty.
The Polish government abolished the problematic disciplinary body. But Warsaw has yet to meet the rest of the conditions and now plans to start drawing down the funds in October.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has earmarked the money for its domestic investment programme, a key pillar of its third term bid next year. The PiS-led administration denies it has unfinished homework and, playing the scapegoat card, insists Poland will “not react to any foot-stamping bureaucrats in Brussels”.
This is Ursula von der Leyen’s mess. Against the opposition of her cabinet she pushed ahead with a plan which ignored the half-life of PiS promises.
PiS has transformed Dr von der Leyen’s carrot into a stick to beat her with. In Poland’s state-controlled media, the EU and its most senior official have failed to adhere to a deal – a deal that Poland itself never intended to keep.