The conflict between the Polish government and the EU Commission has been intensifying for years. The core issue is that the coalition governing the national-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) is radically restructuring the country's judicial system. Warnings from Brussels are mostly ignored by leading politicians in Warsaw, as are interim orders from the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Occasionally it looks as if the PiS is willing to compromise, as if the party would make concessions to a controversial disciplinary chamber at the highest court - in order to push through its so-called judicial reform elsewhere. The Polish government regularly parades the Commission; It is not easy for Brussels officials to keep track of all the paragraphs, processes and reform projects, nor is it always clear when the next escalation level in the dispute over the Polish courts will be reached.
This time, however, everyone involved, both in Warsaw and in Brussels, should be aware of the scope of the Commission's latest decision. It's about a whopping 75 billion euros. That sum from the European cohesion funds will not be paid to Warsaw. This was first reported a few days ago by the Polish daily newspaper "Rzeczpospolita", citing a statement by the European Director General for Regional Policy and Urban Development, Marc Lemaître. The reason: Rule of law standards, above all the independence of the judiciary, are not observed in Poland.
For Warsaw, the prospect of not receiving the money comes as a shock. The government camp therefore accuses Brussels of punishing Poland without good reason, while the opposition blames the government for the billion dollar disaster. "The Polish government did not keep its word," complained Tomasz Siemoniak, deputy chairman of the largest opposition party Civic Platform (PO), in an interview with the news platform "Onet", which, like WELT, belongs to Axel Springer.
Poland is actually entitled to the 75 billion euros from the common financial framework until 2027. The country is the EU's largest net recipient; according to the current status, the grants correspond to around 1.5 percent of Poland's economic output. It's an enormous amount. It comes in addition to the 36 billion euros from the Corona development fund, which the Commission is also withholding because Warsaw absolutely does not adhere to the principles of the rule of law and is not rowing back accordingly when it comes to the dismantling of the judiciary.
The Commission's new harshness towards Poland surprised many observers. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is actually considered cautious about Warsaw, especially since the outbreak of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.
Poland has taken in most of the more than seven million Ukrainians who have fled abroad, is supplying large quantities of weapons, including heavy equipment such as battle tanks, to Ukraine and is demanding ever tougher sanctions against Russia. Many top officials in Brussels therefore did not want to punish Poland financially for a long time. Apparently that has changed.
"The fact that Poland is probably Ukraine's most important European partner is of course recognized," says Adam Traczyk in an interview with WELT. “But it does not play a major role in solving the rule of law problem. Those are two different things,” said the Poland expert at the German Society for Foreign Relations (DGAP) think tank.
The Commission is only insisting on compliance with rules that Warsaw has basically agreed to. And yet the threat of withdrawal of funds is risky. The election campaign has started in Poland. A new parliament will be elected in 2023.
The "United Right", as the governing coalition is also known, is coming under pressure and could blame Brussels for the lack of billions. It is not certain that the voters will then gather behind the PiS. But there are already signs that the election campaign of the national conservatives is developing in this direction.
"This is our money and the Commission only plays the role of an accountant when it is paid out," says Sebastian Kaleta, Deputy Minister of Justice of Poland at WELT. "Speculations about the possibility of blocking the payments have been going on for years by the Commission and some capitals, especially Berlin," said Kaleta. The minister spoke of "pressure and blackmail with the aim of bringing about a change of government." In the event of an illegal blocking of funds, Kaleta said Poland would "not remain passive".
Kaleta represents the stance of Solidarity Poland (SP), PiS's smaller coalition partner, on the matter. Its chairman Zbigniew Ziobro is Minister of Justice and Attorney General in one person - and is considered an uncompromising driver of the dismantling of the judiciary. The coalition partner SP has become a problem for the powerful PiS chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski. If he gives in to Brussels to get the billions released, he risks breaking up the coalition. If the money doesn't reach Poland, his voters could punish him.
"Surveys show that more and more voters, including PiS voters, are concerned that Poland will not receive the billions in the long term and that this could have a negative impact on their lives," explains expert Traczyk. Although the party's core electorate is loyal, there is a risk that pragmatic voters in the "flexible middle" will turn their backs on the PiS.
So Kaczynski has to act. He has maneuvered himself into a tricky situation. "If he doesn't give in to Brussels, the question is: Will he succeed in blaming the Commission, the EU in general or Germany for the misery, or will the voters blame the PiS?" said Traczyk.
Minister of Justice Ziobro, the hardliner, has already presented the matter. Opposition leader Donald Tusk along with German politicians are responsible for blocking European funds due to Poland, Ziobro said. Now it's up to Kaczynski to react. Because the Commission should not move at first.