Demonstrators hold bound flags of the European Union and Poland during the demonstration.
SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images
EU and Polish officials on Tuesday clashed over a recent court ruling, making public a bitter disagreement over the rule of law and the fundamental principles of the political and economic union.
Earlier this month, Poland’s highest court ruled that parts of EU law are in direct conflict with its own constitution — in essence challenging the foundations of the European Union in a way that has never been done before.
This comes at a time when the EU, as a whole, is dealing with a severe energy crisis, trade disputes, and a soul-searching exercise over defense and security policies.
“We have been concerned about the independence of the [Polish] judiciary for some time,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament on Tuesday, adding that “unfortunately the situation has worsened.”
Von der Leyen, who now needs to decide what course of action to take, said she is “deeply concerned” about the situation in Poland.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki didn’t back down. Addressing the same European Parliament straight after von der Leyen, he said his country “will not be intimidated,” according to Reuters. He added that the highest law in his country is its constitution.
The European Union was built on the principle that member states follow a common rulebook, even though they retain the final say in some policy areas. This means, for example, that an EU country is free to decide its own fiscal policy, but it’s supposed to have a public debt and deficit in line with EU rules.
“We cannot and we will not allow our common values to be put at risk. The commission will act,” von der Leyen said. The commission can now legally challenge the decision of the Polish high court, or it can impose financial penalties.
“We must protect the union budget against breaches of the rule of law,” she added.
Poland is due to receive coronavirus recovery funds from the EU worth about 30 billion euros ($34 billion) to deal with the impacts of the pandemic. This money is unlikely to be disbursed anytime soon with the current bad blood.
Questions over Poland’s commitment to the EU resurfaced in the wake of the court ruling.
France’s European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, said earlier this month that the decision out of Poland was “very serious” and adds to the risk of a possible exit from the bloc.
The Polish people, however, are predominately in favor of the EU. Eighty-seven percent of citizens said in November that their country should remain a member of the EU, according to one poll.
The government, led by the conservative Law and Justice party, said it wants the country’s membership in the EU to be a “win-win” situation. More broadly, there are concerns about what the ramifications of this court ruling will be.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has said that he backs the ruling of the Polish court. That country has also been at odds with the European Commission over the rule of law.