Poland’s constitutional tribunal has ruled that parts of EU law are not compatible with the Polish constitution, in a dramatic escalation of a battle between Warsaw and Brussels with tens of billions of euros in EU funding at stake.
The ruling — in response to a case brought by prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki — caps a five-year legal feud between Poland and the EU, during which the country’s conservative-nationalist government has given politicians sweeping powers over the country’s judiciary.
The fight has also sparked questions about Poland’s long-term future in the EU, with the government’s critics at home and abroad accusing it of setting the country on course for “Polexit”.
“The Polish constitutional tribunal agreed completely with what the prime minister wanted,” said Marcin Matczak, a law professor at Warsaw university. “All the questions were answered: ‘Yes, prime minister’.”
Brussels has responded to what EU officials have said are breaches of EU values by withholding approval of Warsaw’s application for €36bn in Covid-19 recovery funds.
The European Commission is also under increasing pressure to deploy powers that would allow it to hold back Poland’s regional development funds worth up to €121bn over the next six years.
Didier Reynders, the EU’s justice commissioner, said after the ruling that Brussels would act to protect the primacy of EU law over national law and the binding nature of the European Court of Justice’s rulings on national governments.
“We are very firm on the different principles and we will use all the tools at our disposal to be sure that it is possible to protect them,” Reynders added.
Asked whether the commission would trigger a mechanism that allowed it to withhold EU funding due to rule of law concerns, Reynders said: “We will use all the tools in the toolbox . . . we will see now how it is possible to put pressure.”
Politicians from the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) say the judicial changes have overhauled an inefficient system and are a purely domestic matter.
“Today’s constitutional court ruling is an appeal to the EU institutions to stop violating the treaties by trying, by usurpation and blackmail, to gain competences which they were not granted in the [EU] treaties,” Poland’s deputy justice minister, Sebastian Kaleta, wrote on Twitter.
“The EU does not have the right to interfere in the Polish judiciary.”
However, the commission and PiS’s domestic opponents regard the changes PiS has introduced as an assault on judicial independence. Brussels has repeatedly taken Poland to the EU’s top court to try to reverse various elements of the reforms.
The constitutional court ruling “has put the country on the path to Polexit”, said Jeroen Lenaers, justice and home affairs spokesman for the European People’s party, the largest bloc in the European parliament.
“This is an attack on the EU as a whole,” added Lenaers. “Our money can’t finance the governments which mock and negate our jointly agreed rules. The consequences must be drawn, and the European Commission should immediately use all available tools in order not to sponsor the autocrats in Warsaw.”
The stand-off has sparked increasingly angry rhetoric in Warsaw, with Zbigniew Ziobro, the hawkish justice minister who also leads PiS’s smaller coalition partner, United Poland, saying in August that the country should not remain in the EU “at any price”.
However, PiS has insisted that it has no intention of taking Poland out of the EU. More than 80 per cent of Poles support EU membership.