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Poland’s parliament partially rolls back judicial changes to get EU cash

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WARSAW — The Polish parliament tweaked a controversial system for disciplining judges in a late Thursday vote — an effort to unblock billions in EU pandemic recovery cash held up by European Commission qualms over rule of law.

The Commission has made clear that Poland won’t get €36 billion in grants and loans under the bloc’s Recovery and Resilience Facility unless it backtracks on sweeping changes to the judicial system that Brussels says violate the EU’s democratic standards.

In Thursday’s vote, the lower House of Parliament approved legislation proposed by President Andrzej Duda that aims to resolve the dispute with the EU in time for a planned June 2 visit to Warsaw by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

However, the bill still has to be approved by the opposition-controlled Senate, and opposition parties in the lower chamber all voted against the measure.

Duda’s proposal set out to meet three Commission milestones: dismantling a controversial disciplinary chamber for judges; reforming the disciplinary regime; and reinstating judges dismissed as a result of disciplinary proceedings.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the parliament before the vote that von der Leyen’s visit would be to “sign off on the three milestones.” 

Duda’s bill set off a political firestorm. It was fiercely opposed by the Euroskeptic United Poland party, a junior member of the ruling coalition alongside the Law and Justice (PiS) party, for kowtowing to Brussels, while the opposition warned the measure doesn’t go far enough in restoring the rule of law and shielding the judicial system from political interference.

In the end, the ruling coalition plus a handful of independent MPs backed the measure, a sign of the urgency in Warsaw at resolving the dispute with Brussels. The recovery fund money became a festering problem for the Polish government, looking for an investment boost after the coronavirus pandemic that would improve its chances for reelection in 2023.

As new crises — rampant inflation and the war in Ukraine — piled on, Warsaw’s desperation to unlock the funds only grew. 

“Poland simply deserves this money and now, with the war going on, Poland needs it even more,” Morawiecki told the tabloid daily Super Express on Wednesday.

But it was clear that Poland needed to make changes to get the funds.

The core of the dispute is the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court, a body critics say is aimed at punishing judges who buck the government. The Court of Justice of the EU ruled last year that the chamber had to be suspended, but Warsaw ignored the court and has been hit with a €1 million a day fine.

After years of wrangling with the EU over worries that the nationalist PiS government was backsliding on democracy, Warsaw agreed in 2020 that getting pandemic relief funds would be conditional on meeting rule of law criteria.

Duda’s bill is supposed to meet those demands from Brussels.

“Our changes precisely meet the milestones,” said Sebastian Kaleta, a deputy justice minister with the United Right party.

But critics say that the Polish legislation is not a sincere effort at undoing the reforms.

“That is a fake compliance operation. The Commission is pretending to enforce rule of law and the Polish government is pretending to comply,” said Laurent Pech, a professor of European law at Middlesex University London.

Pech warned that the bill’s “dismantling” of the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court is just a name change, as the chamber will be simply replaced by the Chamber of Professional Accountability with judges still appointed by the National Council of the Judiciary, a body created in violation of EU laws.

“The broader implications of that will be that everybody will see that the Commission is just not serious about rule of law. You can attack rule of law and get away with it — that is the message,” Pech said.

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