In Concession to Poland, E.U. Opens Door to Frozen Funds

About $38 billion earmarked for Poland from a coronavirus recovery fund had been blocked over judicial disputes. But relations with the bloc improved over Poland’s strong stance against Russia.

BRUSSELS — In a major concession to the Polish government, the European Union’s executive arm on Wednesday opened the door for the disbursement of billions of dollars in aid to Poland that had been blocked during a standoff over judicial independence in the country.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said the executive body had endorsed a Polish plan to address concerns over the country’s judiciary that would in turn unlock funds from an E.U. coronavirus recovery fund that had been frozen by the dispute.

“The approval of this plan is linked to clear commitments by Poland on the independence of the judiciary, which will need to be fulfilled before any actual payment can be made,” Ms. von der Leyen said.

Polish officials said the first tranche of money could be disbursed as soon as September, although E.U. officials did not immediately confirm that timeline.

Reflecting how divisive the issue is in Brussels, two commissioners voted against the approval of Poland’s plan on Wednesday, a first since the recovery fund was established, and two others sent letters expressing concern over the move.

Analysts also questioned the legal force of the commitments the E.U. negotiated with Poland.

Laurent Pech, professor of European law at Middlesex University in London called the commitments “vague, partial and easy to evade.” Mr. Pech added: “They leave systemic issues unaddressed.”

About 36 billion euros, or $38 billion, from the coronavirus fund that had been earmarked for Poland has been frozen for more than a year over the dispute. The European Union has long accused Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party of chipping away at pillars of democracy, particularly an independent judiciary.

Last year, Polish authorities escalated the fight by refusing to abide by rulings of the European Union’s top court, and by declaring the supremacy of the Polish Constitution over E.U. law, effectively questioning the glue that binds the bloc together.

But the invasion of Ukraine by President Vladimir Putin of Russia changed everything, tilting the balance of power in Europe and reshuffling alliances.

Poland took a hard line against Moscow, acting as the bulwark of western Europe against Russian aggression. That helped warm relations between Warsaw and Brussels and created an opportunity for a breakthrough in the dispute.

Wojtek Jargilo/EPA, via Shutterstock

Poland has accepted over three million Ukrainian refugees, the highest number taken by any E.U. member, and has asked Brussels for funds to support them. The country became a transit hub for weapons and humanitarian aid into Ukraine, and has been on the forefront of an E.U. push for sweeping economic sanctions against Russia.

“This is a purely political decision to send a message of European unity,” Camino Mortera-Martínez, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform in Brussels, said of deal announced Wednesday by the European Commission. “Nothing has changed except for the fact that there is war going on.”

She added: “Rule of law is a major victim in this conflict.”

The rule of law is an existential issue for the European Union: For the bloc to function properly, all member nations have to follow the same principles.

Last year, frustrated by Poland’s recalcitrance on judicial independence issues, the bloc started using the sharpest tool at its disposal: money, withholding much needed aid from the coronavirus fund.

Yet Poland has been wrestling with the financial strain of hosting millions of refugees, while also enduring record inflation, which reached almost 14 percent last month.

“Poland simply deserves this money,” the country’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, told local media last week. “And now, with the war going on, Poland needs it even more.”

The shift in the European Commission’s strategy toward Warsaw comes against the backdrop of a growing division between Poland and Hungary.

Poland and Hungary, led by right-wing authoritarian leaders who backed each other in conflicts with Brussels over the rule of law, took divergent paths following the Russian invasion. Under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary maintains close relations with Mr. Putin and has become a main spoiler of E.U. unity.

While the European Commission approved Poland’s recovery plan, Hungary’s funds remain frozen over corruption issues.

Marcin Obara/EPA, via Shutterstock

The European Commission defended the decision to approve Poland’s coronavirus spending plan, saying it did not automatically guarantee disbursement of the funds, and that it will continue monitoring Poland’s progress on rule of law issues.

Vera Jourova, the bloc’s top official for values and transparency, said in an interview: “The purpose of the recovery fund is to mitigate consequences of a crisis triggered by the Covid pandemic, and was never meant to solve all the problems related to rule of law in Poland.”

She added: “There is no quid pro quo, there is no blank check.”

Ms. von der Leyen, the commission’s president, last year set out three conditions for Poland to bring its judiciary in compliance with E.U. standards: dismantling a disciplinary body in the country’s top court that critics said had undermined its independence; reinstating unlawfully dismissed judges; and reforming a system set up by the ruling party to intimidate judges not their liking.

In response to the concerns by the European Commission, President Andrzej Duda of Poland put forward a bill amending the disciplinary system, which is expected to be approved by the Polish Parliament on Thursday.

It is the first concession made by the Polish government since the dispute erupted, as far-right members in the ruling coalition vehemently opposed any compromise with Brussels.

But analysts say that Mr. Duda’s bill offers only cosmetic tweaks and does not resolve the fundamental issue identified by the European Court of Justice — pressure on judges to rule in accordance with the desires of the government.

“This is a smoke screen,” said Anna Wojcik, research affiliate in the Democracy Institute of the Central European University. “The situation of judges remains very difficult. Disciplinary repressions continue, and even intensified.”

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw.

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