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WARSAW — Poland’s parliament tweaked a controversial system of disciplining judges in a late vote on Thursday — an effort to unlock billions in EU pandemic recovery funds stranded by the European Commission’s scruples over the rule of law.
The Commission has made clear that Poland will not get €36 billion in grants and loans under the bloc’s Recovery and Resilience Facility unless it reverses sweeping changes to the justice system which, according to Brussels, violate the democratic standards of the EU.
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 needs to be approved by the opposition-controlled Senate, and opposition parties in the lower house all voted against the measure.
Duda’s proposal aimed to achieve three Commission milestones: the dismantling of a controversial disciplinary chamber for judges; reform the disciplinary system; and the reinstatement of judges dismissed following disciplinary proceedings.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told parliament ahead of the vote that von der Leyen’s visit would be to “sign the three stages”.
Duda’s bill has sparked a political storm. He was fiercely opposed by the eurosceptic 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 will not goes far enough to restore the rule of law and protect the justice system from political interference.
In the end, the ruling coalition and a handful of independent deputies supported the measure, a sign of the urgency in Warsaw to resolve the dispute with Brussels. Money from the stimulus fund has become a recurring issue for the Polish government, seeking an investment boost after the coronavirus pandemic that would improve its chances of re-election in 2023.
As new crises – runaway inflation and war in Ukraine – piled up, Warsaw’s desperation to release the funds only grew.
“Poland simply deserves this money and now, with the war going on, Poland needs it even more,” Morawiecki told the Super Express tabloid on Wednesday.
But it was clear that Poland had to make changes to get the funds.
The heart of the dispute is the Supreme Court’s disciplinary chamber, a body which critics say aims to punish judges who oppose the government. The EU Court of Justice ruled last year that the chamber should be suspended, but Warsaw ignored the court and was fined 1 million euros a day.
After years of wrangling with the EU over concerns the nationalist PiS government is backing down on democracy, Warsaw agreed in 2020 that getting pandemic relief funds would be conditional on meeting state criteria for straight.
Duda’s bill is supposed to respond to these demands from Brussels.
“Our changes precisely respect the milestones”, mentioned Sebastian Kaleta, deputy justice minister of the United Right party.
But critics say the Polish legislation is not a sincere effort to undo the reforms.
“It’s a fake compliance operation. The Commission is pretending to uphold the rule of law and the Polish government is pretending to comply,” said Laurent Pech, professor of EU law at Middlesex University. from London.
Pech warned that the bill’s planned ‘dismantling’ of the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber is only a name change, as the chamber will simply be replaced by the Chamber of Professional Responsibilities with judges still appointed by the National Judicial Council, a body created in violation of EU laws.
“The wider implications of this will be that everyone will see that the Commission is simply not serious about the rule of law. You can attack the rule of law and get away with it – that’s the message said Pech.