Polish PM lashes out at Ursula von der Leyen after she vowed to punish his country

The Polish Prime Minister has told Ursula von der Leyen ‘we will not be blackmailed’ after the European Commission chief vowed to punish his country for challenging the supremacy of EU law. 

Von der Leyen today told the parliament in Strasbourg that the Commission had a three-pronged attack for Poland: legal challenge, sanctions and stripping it of membership rights.

She warned: ‘We cannot and will not allow our common values to be put at risk.’ 

Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki last night wrote a letter accusing the EU of ‘starving’ and ‘punishing’ his country by withholding Covid relief money after Warsaw ruled that its constitution took precedence over European law.

He warned against a ‘dangerous phenomenon that threatens the future of our Union.’

Facing von der Leyen in parliament today, he vowed that Poland would not bow to ‘European centralism’ and that a country’s constitution was higher than any other law on the Continent. 

The PM’s robust speech prompted a cacophony of outrage to break out across the benches, while Polish ministers stood up to applaud after he finished.   

Von der Leyen said she was 'deeply concerned', adding that 'we cannot and will not allow our common values to be put at risk'

Von der Leyen said she was 'deeply concerned', adding that 'we cannot and will not allow our common values to be put at risk'

Von der Leyen said she was ‘deeply concerned’, adding that ‘we cannot and will not allow our common values to be put at risk’

Mateusz Morawiecki told the parliament in Strasbourg that Poland would not bow to 'European centralism' and that the constitution of a country was the highest law on the Continent

Mateusz Morawiecki told the parliament in Strasbourg that Poland would not bow to 'European centralism' and that the constitution of a country was the highest law on the Continent

Mateusz Morawiecki told the parliament in Strasbourg that Poland would not bow to ‘European centralism’ and that the constitution of a country was the highest law on the Continent

Von der Leyen he faces increasing pressure from some member states to get tough on Poland after it escalated a long-running battle with the EU, with disputes ranging from judicial reform to media freedom and LGBT rights.

Referring to the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989, von der Leyen said: ‘The people of Poland wanted democracy … they wanted the freedom to choose their government, they wanted free speech and free media, they wanted an end to corruption and they wanted independent courts to protect their rights.

‘This is what Europe is about and that is what Europe stands for,’ she added. ‘The recent ruling of the Polish Constitutional Court puts much of it into question.’ 

Last week, the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that EU law was incompatible with aspects of the country’s constitution.

Morawiecki insisted that there was no reason why this should drive a wedge between Warsaw and Brussels, but maintained that he would not budge on the issue.

‘The EU will not fall apart simply because our legal systems will be different,’ he said, adding: ‘If you want to make a non-national superstate out of Europe, first get the consent of all the European states and societies.’

Meanwhile, he praised the ‘strong political and economical organism’ of the Bloc, showing the complex position his party is seeking to straddle as it grapples with Brussels, while up to 80 per cent of Poles back being part of the EU.  

Von der Leyen warned that Poland’s constitutional ruling ‘is a direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order.’

She said a first option is so-called infringements, where the Commission legally challenges the Polish court’s judgment, which could lead to fines.

Another option is a conditionality mechanism and other financial tools whereby EU funds would be withheld from Poland.

Until Warsaw’s clash with Brussels is resolved, it is unlikely to see any of the 23.9 billion euros in grants and 12.1 billion in cheap loans that it applied for as part of the EU’s recovery fund after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The EU could even block Polish access to EU grants for development and structural projects in the 2021-2027 budget worth around 70 billion euros.

Von der Leyen said a third option is the application of Article 7 of the EU’s treaties. Under this, rights of member states – including the right to vote on EU decisions – can be suspended because they have breached core values of the bloc. 

Earlier this month, Poland's Constitutional Court (pictured) ruled that EU treaties were incompatible with the Polish constitution, putting Warsaw and Brussels on a full collision course

Earlier this month, Poland's Constitutional Court (pictured) ruled that EU treaties were incompatible with the Polish constitution, putting Warsaw and Brussels on a full collision course

Earlier this month, Poland’s Constitutional Court (pictured) ruled that EU treaties were incompatible with the Polish constitution, putting Warsaw and Brussels on a full collision course

Morawiecki, speaking after her in the EU assembly, accused the bloc of overstepping its authority.

‘EU competencies have clear boundaries, we must not remain silent when those boundaries are breached. So we are saying yes to European universalism, but we say no to European centralism,’ he said.

A succession of members of the parliament then stood up to castigate the Polish leader, while some EU ministers gathering for a meeting in Luxembourg joined the chorus of criticism.  

Morawiecki ended up running over his allotted speaking time, prompting warnings from Parliament Vice President Pedro Silva Pereira.

‘You will take note that I was extremely flexible with the allocated time so that nobody can say that you didn’t have time enough to give explanations to the European Parliament,’ Pereira told the PM. 

‘But respect of the allocated time is also a way of showing respect for this house of the European democracy.’ 

Why some fear a ‘Polexit’ from European Union 

Poland will be a focus of European attention this week, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki addressing the European Parliament and leaders at a European Union summit expected to grapple with a legal conundrum created by a recent ruling by Poland’s constitutional court.

Some opponents of Poland’s nationalist government fear that the court’s ruling has put the country on a path to a possible ‘Polexit,’ or a departure from the 27-nation EU like Britain did with Brexit. The government denounces those spreading the idea, which it calls ‘fake news.’ Here is a look at the differing views on the matter – and why Poland’s departure from the bloc is unlikely.

THE BACKSTORY

Poland’s government, which is led by the conservative Law and Justice party, has been in conflict with EU officials in Brussels since it took power in 2015. The dispute is largely over changes to the Polish judicial system which give the ruling party more power over the courts. Polish authorities say they seek to reform a corrupt and inefficient justice system. The European Commission believes the changes erode the country’s democratic system of checks and balances.

ANTI-EU RHETORIC EMERGES FROM POLAND

As the standoff over the judiciary has grown more tense, with the Commission threatening to withhold billions of euros in pandemic recovery funds to Poland over it, ruling party leaders have sometimes compared the EU to the Soviet Union, Poland’s occupying power during the Cold War.

Ryszard Terlecki, the party’s deputy leader, said last month that if things don’t go the way Poland likes, ‘we will have to search for drastic solutions.’ Referring to Brexit, he also said: ‘The British showed that the dictatorship of the Brussels bureaucracy did not suit them and turned around and left.’

Marek Suski, another leading party member, said Poland ‘will fight the Brussels occupier’ just as it fought the Nazi and Soviet occupiers in the past. ‘Brussels sends us overlords who are supposed to bring Poland to order, to put us on our knees, so that we might be a German state, and not a proud state of free Poles,’ he declared.

A KEY RULING OVER LAWS

This month Poland’s constitutional court challenged the notion that EU law supersedes the laws of its 27 member nations with a ruling saying that some EU laws are incompatible with the nation’s own constitution.

That decision – made by a court dominated by ruling party loyalists – gives the Polish government the justification it had sought to ignore directives from the European Union’s Court of Justice which it doesn’t like – particularly on matters of judicial independence.

The ruling marks another major test for the EU after years of managing its messy divorce from the U.K.

WHAT DOES THE POLISH GOVERNMENT SAY?

Polish leaders say it’s absurd to think they want to leave the EU and they accuse the opposition of playing with the idea of ‘Polexit’ for political gain.

Morawiecki, the prime minister, said last week that the opposition ‘is trying to insinuate that we want to weaken Poland and the European Union by leaving the EU. This is obviously not only fake news, it is even worse. It is simply a lie that is made to weaken the EU.’

Morawiecki spoke soon after Poland’s leading opposition leader, Donald Tusk, a former EU leader, organized mass nationwide protests voicing support for Poland remaining in the EU.

COULD EXPULSION HAPPEN FOR POLAND?

The EU has no legal mechanism to expel a member. That means for Polexit to happen, it would have to be triggered by Warsaw. At the moment, the idea seems farfetched, because EU membership in Poland is extremely popular, with surveys showing more than 80% of Poles favor being in the bloc.

When Poland entered the EU in 2004, Poles won new freedoms to travel and work across the EU and a dramatic economic transformation was set in motion that has benefited millions.

Yet some Poles still fear that could change. They worry that if new EU funds are withheld from Poland over rule of law disputes, Poles might eventually come to feel that it’s no longer in their benefit to belong to the bloc.

Some simply fear a political accident along the lines of what happened with Britain’s departure from the EU. The former British prime minister who called for a referendum on EU membership, David Cameron, had sought to have the country remain in the bloc. He called for the vote to settle the matter, believing Britons would vote to stay. A majority in 2016 did not, and Cameron quickly resigned. 

Reporting by AP 

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