The European Commission will on Wednesday take the unprecedented step of triggering Article 7 — the so-called nuclear option — against Poland, following countless warnings, requests for dialogue and demands for clarifications aboutchanges to the country’s judicial system.
Diplomats in Brussels and Warsaw said contacts between the two sides had grown scarcer over the last year and described relations between the Commission and the Polish government as heading down a dead-end street.
“There were invitations from the Commission and many were not accepted,” said a senior European diplomat with knowledge of the talks between Warsaw and Brussels. “There have been complicated legal analyses from the Polish side, which just repeated the well-known positions of the government.”
Senior EU officials said Brussels has exhausted all other options, and ultimately faced a crisis of credibility by continuing to stand by without acting, as Warsaw essentially shrugged off the warnings.
Rather than heralding a shift in direction by Warsaw, the recent appointment of a new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, seemed to amount to a doubling-down by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, the senior diplomat said. “I didn’t see any substantial opening” from the new government, the diplomat said. “It seems to be just an improvement in style.”
Two years of fighting
On Wednesday, European commissioners will decide to formally initiate the Article 7 process, which could strip Warsaw of its voting rights, according to three EU officials. The decision will be taken following measures adopted by the Polish parliament that would permit the dismissal of many of the country’s Supreme Court judges.
The triggering of Article 7 will mark a major escalation in a two-year legal battle, which started when the Commission initiated an investigation into Polish legal changes in January 2016, following a battle for control of the Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s top court.
This July, after the adoption of similar legislation, the Commission warned Poland it was ready to “immediately trigger” Article 7 if Warsaw took any step allowing the government to “dismiss or force the retirement of Supreme Court judges.”
In a surprise move, President Andrzej Duda vetoed two of the controversial bills — but it was a sign not of agreement with Brussels but rather an indication of an internal power struggle. The measures adopted last week included changes personally proposed by Duda and there is little doubt in Brussels that he now intends to sign them into law.
Warsaw has long disputed the EU’s rule of law enforcement procedure and has argued the changes are necessary to root out corruption and modernize a system that has elements left over from communism.
At a news conference in Warsaw on Tuesday, Morawiecki seemed unconcerned by developments in Brussels.
“It is the European Commission’s prerogative to start the procedure or not to start it, or to start it on the basis of subsequent dialogues,” Morawiecki said, adding, “I offered the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker a dialogue and discussion. We want to conduct a dialogue. But at the same time we want to reform our system of justice.”
A Polish diplomat in Brussels said there had been virtually no contact of late between Warsaw and the Commission.
In his first interview with Polish media after being appointed, Morawiecki made clear that he does not represent a change in Poland’s position. He said Poland would not bow to Brussels’ “nasty threats.”
In another interview last week with theWashington Examiner, Morawiecki said Poland has “struggled” with the widespread misunderstanding of his country’s plans to reform its “deeply flawed” judicial structure.
Last week, Morawiecki also ignored an invitation for a meeting from European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, and left the European Council summit early Friday, missing the leaders’ collective decision to green-light Phase 2 of Brexit talks.
Juncker is expected to visit Poland in January for the first time since PiS came into government. “They’re going to discuss the judicial reforms,” the Polish diplomat said.
Completing the first step in the Article 7 procedure requires a four-fifths vote in the European Council, a threshold officials in Brussels said they are confident could be achieved — even if Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia side with Poland.
The Council, the European Parliament and major EU countries are expected to support the Commission’s effort to take action. Last month, the Parliament voted by 438 votes to 152 to prepare a formal request for the European Council to begin the Article 7 procedure against Poland. And last Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they would support the Commission if it recommended sanctions against Warsaw.
Michal Broniatowski contributed reporting from Warsaw.