Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is hoping to push through a legislative proposal on February 8 that it hopes will ultimately convince Brussels to release billions from the EU’s pandemic recovery fund.
The funds – €36bn in grants and loans – have been on hold as the European Commission considers the Polish government’s judiciary reforms a threat to the independence and impartiality of judges. Poland needs the money as its economic growth is sputtering and inflation remains well in the teens, leaving PiS potentially vulnerable at the general election later this year.
If the judicial reform is passed it would also mark a watershed in the relations between Warsaw and Brussels, demonstrating the effectiveness of the European Commission's new Conditionality Mechanism, which uses withholding of budget disbursements to pressure errant states such as Poland and Hungary from eroding democracy further.
At the centre of the spat is how Polish law proposes to discipline judges. Under current regulations, a specially designed chamber of the Supreme Court is tasked with the job.
But, says Brussels, the chamber has been subject to too much political control from the government, which has effectively made it a tool of pressure against judges critical of the reforms and of the government as such.
Keen to secure that payouts from the pandemic recovery fund do flow sometime in 2023, an election year, PiS appears to have softened its position and worked out what it says is a compromise with the EU.
The compromise – which the parliament is expected to vote on February 8, rejecting any amendments introduced by the opposition-held Senate – proposes that the handling of the controversial regime for disciplining judges is moved from the Supreme Court to the Supreme Court of Administration, a court that has largely avoided PiS’ attempts at political control.
The new legislation is one of the crucial so-called milestones, which Brussels demands Poland meet in order to alleviate the EU’s concerns over the state of rule of law in the country. That, in turn, would allow the pandemic recovery fund’s money to flow.
“Optimistically speaking, the money could arrive this summer,” Poland’s EU affairs minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek told private broadcaster Polsat on February 7.
But even before any money arrives, seeing off the bitter dispute with the EU could be a boon for PiS just months before the election, which the ruling party hopes to win and secure an unprecedented third straight term in office.
PiS is confident that the Commission will eventually greenlight the recovery funds, following through on the earlier talks with PiS.
According to the opposition, the proposal is unconstitutional, risking rejection by the Commission and thus further delay in getting the funds to flow. That could give the opposition at least some extra firepower in the election campaign.
One last hurdle to clear will be signing the proposal into law by President Andrzej Duda but PiS seems to assume the president would not want to throw a spanner in the work at the last minute.
“At the moment, there is no decision by the president and the prime minister will talk to the president about this matter,” the government spokesman Piotr Müller told a press briefing on February 7.
The president’s office said in early February that once Duda receives the final text of the proposal, as passed by the parliament, he will make his decision “quickly”.