The EU’s Parliament has threatened to sue Ursula Von Der Leyen if she refuses to withhold funding from Poland amid and increasingly bitter row over the rule law.
David Sassoli, parliament’s president, said lawyers have been instructed to ‘prepare a lawsuit against the [EU] Commission’ – which Ms Von Der Leyen heads – ‘to ensure rules are properly enforced.’
Mr Sassoli, an Italian politician who was elected parliament’s president in 2019, spoke out as national leaders from the bloc’s 27 member states convene in Brussels today for two days of talks with Poland set to be top of the agenda.
Backing Mr Sassoli are EU heavyweights such as France and the Netherlands, along with smaller states such as Sweden, Finland and Luxembourg.
Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is relying largely on Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban for support, though outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned the EU against isolating Poland and urged compromise.
The row was sparked when Poland’s top constitutional court ruled that laws made within the country take precedence over laws written in Brussels – a major challenge to the EU’s founding principles.
Ms Von Der Leyen is now facing pressure to withhold £48billion in EU Covid recovery funding that is earmarked for Poland unless the government falls back into line.
Von der Leyen said she was ‘deeply concerned’, adding that ‘we cannot and will not allow our common values to be put at risk’
Mateusz Morawiecki told the parliament in Strasbourg that Poland would not bow to ‘European centralism’ and that the constitution of a country was the highest law on the Continent
Ms Von Der Leyen could also take the issue to the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice, to obtain a ruling that Poland is in violation of EU laws.
If the court rules in her favour, then it can levy daily fines until Poland returns to compliance. If Poland refuses to pay, then it can withhold funds.
Ms Von Der Leyen could also try to strip Poland of voting rights within EU institutions, but she would need the support of the bloc’s 26 other leaders – with Hungary likely to block the move.
The row is just the latest crisis to rock the EU since Britain voted to leave in 2016, in large part due to concerns over sovereignty.
It has sparked concerns over a so-called ‘Polexit’, which observers have warned may lead to the wholesale collapse of the European project.
Poland – an ex-Communist nation where support for the EU is high among voters – is unlikely to vote to leave the EU as Britain did, but many fear it could cause a collapse from within by challenging the bloc’s founding principles.
Mr Morawiecki has denied trying to break up the bloc, saying he is not challenging the EU’s laws themselves – only interpretations of them.
Poland and Hungary are bitterly opposed to agreements negotiated last year as the EU’s £1.5trillion Covid recovery budget was agreed, which linked the funding to enforcing laws such as equality and human rights legislation.
In a fiery speech to the European Parliament earlier this week, Mr Morawiecki accused the EU of ‘blackmail’ which poses a threat to the union.
But Ms Von Der Leyen struck back. Referring to the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989, she said: ‘The people of Poland wanted democracy … they wanted the freedom to choose their government, they wanted free speech and free media, they wanted an end to corruption and they wanted independent courts to protect their rights.
‘This is what Europe is about and that is what Europe stands for,’ she added. ‘The recent ruling of the Polish Constitutional Court puts much of it into question.’
Last week, the Polish Constitutional Court ruled that EU law was incompatible with aspects of the country’s constitution.
Morawiecki insisted that there was no reason why this should drive a wedge between Warsaw and Brussels, but maintained that he would not budge on the issue.
‘The EU will not fall apart simply because our legal systems will be different,’ he said, adding: ‘If you want to make a non-national superstate out of Europe, first get the consent of all the European states and societies.’
Meanwhile, he praised the ‘strong political and economical organism’ of the Bloc, showing the complex position his party is seeking to straddle as it grapples with Brussels, while up to 80 per cent of Poles back being part of the EU.
He also rejected any suggestion that the country was on a pathway to ‘Polexit,’ following in Britain’s footsteps.
‘We should not be spreading further lies about Poland leaving the EU,’ he said.
‘For us, European integration is a civilisational and strategic choice,’ he said. ‘We are here, we belong here and we are not going anywhere.’
He said that Western countries, especially France and Germany, had benefited enormously from the entrance of eastern states into the Bloc.
However, he said that the West-East divide had resulted in first and second classes within the EU, with member states like Poland given short shrift.
‘Today all Europeans, expect one thing. They want us to face up to the challenges posed by several crises at the same time, and not against each other, looking for someone to blame – or rather, those who are not really to blame, but whom it is convenient to blame,’ he said.
‘We cannot remain silent when our country – including in this Chamber – is attacked in an unfair and biased manner.’
The PM said that Poland was a ‘proud nation’ and would not be cowed by threats of financial penalties which were tantamount to ‘blackmail.’
‘I reject the language of threats, hazing and coercion,’ Morawiecki said.
Morawiecki also criticised the ‘creeping’ expansion of EU powers, with particular regard to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Von der Leyen warned that Poland’s constitutional ruling ‘is a direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order.’
Earlier this month, Poland’s Constitutional Court (pictured) ruled that EU treaties were incompatible with the Polish constitution, putting Warsaw and Brussels on a full collision course
She said a first option is so-called infringements, where the Commission legally challenges the Polish court’s judgment, which could lead to fines.
Another option is a conditionality mechanism and other financial tools whereby EU funds would be withheld from Poland.
Until Warsaw’s clash with Brussels is resolved, it is unlikely to see any of the 23.9 billion euros in grants and 12.1 billion in cheap loans that it applied for as part of the EU’s recovery fund after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EU could even block Polish access to EU grants for development and structural projects in the 2021-2027 budget worth around 70 billion euros.
Von der Leyen said a third option is the application of Article 7 of the EU’s treaties. Under this, rights of member states – including the right to vote on EU decisions – can be suspended because they have breached core values of the bloc.
Morawiecki, speaking after her in the EU assembly, accused the bloc of overstepping its authority.
‘EU competencies have clear boundaries, we must not remain silent when those boundaries are breached. So we are saying yes to European universalism, but we say no to European centralism,’ he said.
A succession of members of the parliament then stood up to castigate the Polish leader, while some EU ministers gathering for a meeting in Luxembourg joined the chorus of criticism.
Morawiecki ended up running over his allotted speaking time, prompting warnings from Parliament Vice President Pedro Silva Pereira.
‘You will take note that I was extremely flexible with the allocated time so that nobody can say that you didn’t have time enough to give explanations to the European Parliament,’ Pereira told the PM.
‘But respect of the allocated time is also a way of showing respect for this house of the European democracy.’