October 26, 2016

EU gives Poland more time in rule of law probe, agrees to talks

EU Commission First Vice-President Timmermans addresses a news conference in Brussels

The European Union executive on Tuesday said it would not escalate as planned its investigation into whether rule of law was under threat in Poland, but attend last-minute talks with Warsaw in a bid to resolve the dispute.

The European Commission launched its unprecedented probe after Poland’s eurosceptic government introduced changes that critics say paralyse its top constitutional court, key for upholding democratic checks and balances.

Last week, the Commission gave Warsaw until May 23 to make substantial progress in addressing concerns raised in Brussels over democratic rights and governance. Otherwise, Brussels said it could issue Poland with a formal diplomatic note on that.

While no breakthrough has taken place since, Poland invited the Commission’s First Vice President Frans Timmermans for talks with Prime Minister Beata Szydlo that are due at 2 pm (noon GMT) in Warsaw on Tuesday. Timmermans would also meet the tribunal’s head, Andrzej Rzeplinski.

The Commission’s spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, said it was unlikely the Commission would make any decision on the matter until its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, returns from a trip abroad.

Juncker will be travelling to Japan on Wednesday and come back after a May 26-27 summit of G7 leaders there.

Brussels is concerned that disputes over appointments to Poland’s constitutional tribunal and amendments to its functioning introduced since the nationalist-minded Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in late 2015 have undermined its ability to review new legislation.

Should the Commission find these moves posed a danger to the rule of law, its top sanction against Poland could be to strip it of its voting rights in the EU.

Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said on Tuesday the two sides were close to resolving the spat, which comes as the EU is under great strain from a migration crisis and the looming referendum in Britain on whether to leave the bloc.

In an emotional speech to the Polish parliament, Szydlo said last week she would “not yield to any ultimatum” from Brussels, but the two sides have held intensive talks in recent days.

The case poses a headache for Brussels, which has to tread a thin line between trying to ensure Warsaw does not breach the EU’s democratic standards and avoiding antagonising a member of the bloc already struggling with multiple crises.

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