Brussels signals potential end to rule of law dispute with Poland

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Brussels has signalled it could end a years-long sanctions procedure against Poland by the summer after Donald Tusk’s government presented its plan for restoring judicial independence.

The plan, seen by the Financial Times, sets out several bills that Tusk’s coalition will seek to pass in order to reform the judiciary and reverse the overhauls undertaken by the previous Polish government. The rule of law dispute with Warsaw prompted the European Commission to freeze more than €100bn of Poland’s EU funds and trigger proceedings in 2017 that could have led to the suspension of Polish voting rights in the EU.

If the Tusk reforms are adopted as planned, EU officials believe the sanctions procedure could be lifted before summer.

But the reforms still require approval by Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, who is a nominee and former party member of the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) party, which started the dispute with Brussels.

“Duda is now the major obstacle for implementing legal reform in Poland,” said Maciej Kisilowski, a Polish law professor at the Central European University in Vienna. He said the danger persisted “even if the government manages somehow to convince the European Commission to take the view that the entire country should not be punished for the actions of its president”.

The action plan would remove or alter laws carried out by the PiS government, concerning the appointment system for judges by the national council of the judiciary and the membership of the constitutional court, which has been packed with PiS judges who have been siding with Duda against Tusk since his government took office in December.

The plan also mentions closing legal cases brought against the previous PiS government at international courts.

The “Polish government is determined to implement this action plan without any delay”, the document reads. It states as its “primary interest” the restoring of judicial independence in line with Polish and EU law.

EU justice commissioner Didier Reynders said on Tuesday that “now we have a detailed road map . . . We need to restore the rule of law”. He said the commission would draw up an assessment “in the next weeks . . . of the situation and we’ll see what’s the best way forward”.

Speaking alongside Reynders, Polish justice minister Adam Bodnar said that once the Article 7 procedure, which could restrict Polish voting rights, is lifted, “it means that we are stronger as a member state, that we might have more influence on how the European integration is going”.

Bodnar has already acknowledged in a recent interview that parts of the action plan, including the overhaul of the constitutional court, might need to wait until after presidential elections next year.

In the meantime, Bodnar said that parliament could still pass bills and show the EU that Poland wants to clean up its judiciary, which would leave Duda with the “political responsibility” for torpedoing the changes if he decided to use his veto.

Warsaw hopes that resolving its dispute will unlock €136bn in EU funding, including €60bn from the post-Covid recovery fund. Tusk’s government received a €5.1bn advance payment in December under the recovery fund and the commission will decide by the end of February on disbursing the next tranche worth €6.3bn.

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