EU approves Poland Covid recovery fund despite legal concerns | Poland

The European Commission approved a long-delayed Covid stimulus package for Poland, overriding concerns Warsaw would make cosmetic changes to its heavily criticized legal system to unlock EU money.

The chairman of the committee, Ursula von der Leyenis expected to sign the deal in Warsaw on Thursday, although Poland will have to undertake further legal reforms to access 35.4bn euros (£30bn) in stimulus grants and loans.

This decision marks an important moment in the six-year battle for independent courts in Poland, as other disputes remain open.

In a statement, Von der Leyen said the Polish plan would help decarbonise its economy, strengthen energy independence and improve the country’s investment climate.

“The approval of this plan is linked to clear commitments from Poland on the independence of the judiciary, which will need to be fulfilled before any real payment can be made,” she said.

Poland’s Covid recovery plan was suspended for months because its right-wing nationalist government refused to loosen control of the justice system, raising a red flag over changes to the rule of law.

Last October, Von der Leyen set three conditions for releasing the funds: dismantling a disciplinary chamber for judges of the Supreme Court of Poland; changing the judicial disciplinary system; and the reinstatement of judges suspended under the current rules.

Poland’s lower house, the Sejm, voted last week break the supreme court disciplinary chamber, a gesture that Warsaw hopes to release the funds. Legal experts and opposition parties say the law does not go far enough.

The bill “contains cosmetic changes… and falls short of the expectations set out in October 2021 by the [commission]“said a open letter to Von der Leyen this week, signed by 11 legal and human rights groups, including the Association of Polish Judges.

The groups warn that the bill does not guarantee the reinstatement of judges “illegally suspended by the disciplinary chamber”, but creates a procedure for reviewing their cases which “does not guarantee an independent and impartial judgement”.

The letter continues: “Accordingly, the judges who have, by all accounts, displayed the most respectable behavior, risking their careers and exposing themselves to repression and harassment for having upheld the principles set out in [the EU treaty]will now have to undergo a humiliating procedure before a similarly flawed appointed body.

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At least two committee vice-chairs – Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager – voted against approval. Věra Jourová, the deputy chair of the rule of law committee, had qualms about endorsing Poland’s plan but was not present when senior EU executive officials met on Wednesday.

The chairman of the commission wants to end the dispute with Poland, a staunch ally of Ukraine which is home to 3.6 million people who fled Russia’s war of aggression.

EU sources stressed that endorsing the recovery plan – which includes measures to help Ukrainians in the Polish labor market – does not mean handing out money.

“It’s not correct to say: ‘Money for Poland’,” an EU official said. “It’s the approval of the plan, the first step towards getting this money – an important step, of course, but the most important will be whether Poland will keep its promises.”

The commission will decide in late June or early July whether Poland has done enough to reach Von der Leyen’s three steps and release the money.

Critics have already accused the commission of making unnecessary concessions. Brussels would be ready to release the clawback billions once the Polish government could say there was a process to reinstate the suspended judges, without waiting for them to return to their jobs.

“Giving the Polish government more leeway and time on this process is an unnecessary concession,” said Anna Wójcik of the Central European University’s Democracy Institute. “It will backfire on the commission and diminish the confidence of the rule of law advocates in its actions as ‘guardian of the treaties'”.

Wójcik described the bill passed in the Sejm as a smokescreen that simply changed the name of the body responsible for judicial disciplinary cases.

“This does not solve the central problem of the process of appointing judges in Poland, which raises questions about their independence from EU law and the standards of European conventions: the fact that a politicized body, the National Council of the judiciary, is essential to recommend who can be a judge in Poland,” Wójcik said.

“This is not proof of a sudden reversal of the government and a return to democratic values ​​in Poland. It’s just an attempt to play a long game of ‘catch me if you can’ and try to get as many euros as possible before the election.”

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