Senior Official Criticizes EU’s Handling of Poland’s Covid Recovery Plan | European Commission


A senior European Commission official has slammed his colleagues’ decision to approve Poland’s Covid recovery plan, in comments that reveal the depth of rule of law concerns in the central European country .

Frans Timmermans, deputy chairman of the commission, who has spent nearly four years leading EU efforts to protect independent courts in Poland, said the approval of Poland’s long-delayed Covid recovery plan on last month was “incorrect”.

In an interview with the Guardian, he explained publicly for the first time why he voted against approving the plan despite the introduction of a Polish law aimed at bringing the country’s judicial system in line with European standards.

“I believe that the legislation prepared and voted on in the Polish parliament does not respect the milestones that we had set ourselves, and there I am in the minority within the college [of EU commissioners],” he said.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has defended approval of the plan, said Poland would not get 35.4bn euros (£30bn) in grants and loans from the EU without further progress on judicial reforms.

Timmermans was speaking before Von der Leyen said last Friday that Poland had not done enough to secure the first payment because its new law failed to meet EU standards on the independence of judges. “We haven’t finished assessing the whole law, but this part that we already see is missing,” she said.

The decision to approve Poland’s long-delayed Covid stimulus fund was a landmark moment in the six-and-a-half-year dispute between Brussels and Poland’s right-wing nationalist government over the rule of law.

Last October, Von der Leyen set three conditions for releasing the funds: dismantling a disciplinary chamber for judges within the Supreme Court of Poland; changing the judicial disciplinary system; and the reinstatement of suspended judges under new rules.

Legal experts have accused the commission of paying lip service to those milestones and rewarding Poland for making cosmetic changes. One of the biggest concerns, shared by Timmermans, is the reinstatement of judges who have risked their careers to defend judicial independence.

Coronavirus cases in Poland
Coronavirus cases in Poland

Last year, the European Court of Justice last year called for the immediate reinstatement of judges illegally suspended by a politically controlled disciplinary tribunal of the Polish Supreme Court.

The commission has, however, given Poland until the end of 2023. The Warsaw-designed process means suspended judges will have their cases reviewed by so-called “neo-judges” appointed under the new system.

A professor of EU law, Laurent Pech of Middlesex University, described the process as “akin to asking victims of theft to first ask a committee headed by a majority of thieves for a review of their theft in order to possibly, but not necessarily, see the return of their stolen property.

Timmermans said the suspended judges should be reinstated without delay and without conditions. He said: “Now in the Polish system, as they have now decided, judges who have been unlawfully removed from office have the right to re-apply for that office and it can take up to 18 months. Then the same people who decided they were stripped of their office should then decide whether they get their office back I don’t think that’s a proper implementation of the judgment of the European Court of Justice and I believe that we, as guardians of the Treaty, have an obligation to ensure correct application.

Another of Von der Leyen’s aides, Danish commission vice-chair Margrethe Vestager, also voted against the plan. The two commissioners responsible for European judicial standards, Věra Jourová and Didier Reynders, opposed the decision but missed the vote.

Timmermans said he would now represent the majority opinion, because “as a member of this commission, I am also responsible for this position”.

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