Saturday, December 9

European Commission ready to release €36bn recovery funds for Poland | European Commission

The European Commission is preparing to release billions in recovery funds for Poland “within a matter of weeks”, sparking accusations that it is putting EU wartime unity above concerns about the rule of law in the country.

The commission has for months refused to unlock €36bn (£30bn) in recovery funds for Poland over concerns about its government’s ability to guarantee the proper spending of EU money, due to politicized courts. But with a brutal war at the EU’s borders that has sent 3 million refugees fleeing into neighboring countries, including 1.86 million in Poland, officials are seeking an end to the dispute.

According to two sources, the commission is ready to release Poland’s billions if the government moves forward with plans to scrap the disciplinary tribunal of the supreme court, a central aspect of the long-running dispute between Warsaw and Brussels over the rule of law. “There is a strong willingness from the commission to unblock it,” said an official, who added that money could be released within a “matter of weeks”. To release the funds, the commission would not require Poland to reinstate judges ousted from their posts as a result of policies pursued by Warsaw to increase political control over the court system.

Nor is the commission expected to move forward any time soon with a sanctions process that could ultimately deprive Poland of billions more in EU funds for violations of the rule of law. A landmark court ruling last month confirmed that countries can be deprived of EU money when they breach democratic standards, piling pressure on Brussels to trigger the “rule of law conditionality mechanism” against Poland and Hungary.

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The EU executive would also like to release Hungary’s €7.2bn recovery money, but is not making any decisions before parliamentary elections on 3 April. The incumbent prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is facing his toughest challenge yet against a united opposition candidate, although he remains ahead in the polls.

Poland has been on a collision course with Brussels since 2015 when the nationalist Law and Justice party came to power and began to take control of the court system, moves that raised fears about the rule of law. Hungary’s funds have been withheld over concerns about the spending of EU money by Orbán’s friends and family, as well as the politicization of state institutions.

Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the second world war, which has led to 1.86 million refugees arriving in Poland and 273,000 in Hungary in just three weeks, has bolstered voices in the commission that favor a compromise.

“It doesn’t make sense to hold the recovery funds from Poland when we are going to throw money at them,” said the source, referring to the release of funds to help Warsaw manage refugees.

Daniel Freund, the German Green MEP who has been a long-term critic of the commission’s handling of the dispute, said the combination of refugees, “the war next door” and the large sense of wanting to create unity meant the commission appeared to be “ignoring the illiberal and autocratic tendencies” inside the EU.

“You have people in Ukraine that are basically fighting and dying for the rule of law,” he said. “And at the same time you think it’s a good idea to turn a blind eye rule on those applying the [Vladimir] Putin playbook in Poland and Hungary, dismantling the judiciary, the independent media, taking over and co-opting a large share of the economy.”

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A spokesperson for the European Commission said it was continuing it assessment of Poland’s recovery plan, which includes “an assessment of whether the measures included in the plan contribute to effectively addressing the country-specific recommendation issued to Poland to safeguard the independence of its judiciary” .

A second spokesperson added that the commission was continuing its assessment on the rule of law conditionality mechanism: “What matters here is quality over speed, in particular, since we can reasonably expect any steps we take to be challenged at court.”

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