BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Western EU states told Poland on Tuesday that time was running out for it to address concerns in a dispute over democratic freedoms, but held off from further action as a deadline for a response from Warsaw approaches.
In a long-running and bruising clash, the executive European Commission has accused Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party of undermining the rule of law with reforms to the judiciary and state media since taking power in late 2015.
After repeatedly declining to backtrack on its reforms, Warsaw has now sat down to negotiations as talks on the bloc’s next budget cycle starting in 2021 get under way.
Arriving in Brussels on Tuesday for a ministerial meeting on the topic, Germany’s Michael Roth warned Poland against using discussions with the Commission as a smokescreen.
“The clock is ticking. The European Commission and a series of EU members are very concerned about the rule of law situation, particularly the independence of the judiciary,” Roth told journalists, saying Berlin and Paris were speaking with one voice.
“We hope that at talks that we reach a reasonable solution... In recent days I have noticed positive signals of willingness (from Poland) to engage in dialogue. That’s an important point, but at the end it’s not about promises but concrete acts.”
Senior Polish officials have hinted Warsaw could introduce some tweaks to the new judiciary laws.
But details have yet to be agreed, and Sweden and the Netherlands also were also among countries who want to make sure Poland does not get off the hook.
“We hope the Polish government uses the opportunity to solve this issue until the end of the deadline by means of dialogue,” added Austria’s Minister Gernot Blumel.
Brussels has recommended that the bloc launch an unprecedented Article 7 punitive procedure against Warsaw - which could lead to suspending Poland’s voting rights in the EU - unless it concedes ground by March 20.
That ultimate sanction is highly unlikely to materialise, as Warsaw’s most vocal eurosceptic ally, Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, has promised to block any such move, which would require unanimity among the EU’s other 27 states.
But by locking horns with the EU, Poland risks alienating other members of the bloc, which could backfire in the budgetary talks and potentially cost it millions of euros of EU funding.
The ministerial session on Tuesday ran for longer than planned, which suggests a lively discussion, with Poland’s other eastern European neighbours also not seeming inclined to advance the sanctions process.
“Today is no time for decisions,” said Bulgaria’s deputy prime minister, Ekaterina Zakharieva.
Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek, Philip Blenkinsop; editing by John Stonestreet