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Merkel urges EU and Poland to ease tension over rule of law dispute

Angela Merkel has urged the EU not to get bogged down in rule of law disputes at the European court as she and other leaders sought to ease tensions with Poland over judicial independence.

The German chancellor said member states needed to find ways to “come together again”, as she arrived in Brussels on Thursday for an EU summit where leaders plan to discuss how the bloc should respond to Polish threats to judicial independence and to the primacy of EU law.

EU member states are at odds over how they should confront a ruling by Poland’s constitutional court that key parts of EU law are not compatible with the Polish constitution — a verdict considered a direct challenge to the union’s legal order.

The dispute, after five years of back and forth between Warsaw and Brussels over challenges to judicial independence by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), has raised questions about Poland’s future in the EU.

On Tuesday European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen laid out three tools Brussels could use to punish Warsaw, including a legal challenge, a mechanism that could reduce EU funding for Poland and a sanctions process that could strip the country of its EU voting rights.

But Merkel struck a cautious stance over the dispute. “A cascade of legal disputes brought before the [European Court of Justice] is not a solution to the problem,” she said before the summit in Brussels that will also cover the EU energy crisis and migration.

The chancellor said the Poland issue was a symptom of a broader problem on how member states view the EU and how much sovereignty they are willing to hand over. “That is certainly not just an issue between Poland and the EU, it is also being discussed in other member states,” she said.

Her conciliatory tone was echoed by a number of other leaders. Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez said that while Poland needed to recognise the commission’s role as a guardian of the EU’s treaties, he was looking for a “constructive way to find a solution” to a very complex situation.

Charles Michel, the European Council president, said the EU needed to be “firm” on rule of law principles, but also that “we need to engage in dialogue so we can achieve positive results”.

The EU is by no means united over what to do about Poland and there are also concerns about the respect of core EU principles in a number of member states, including Hungary and Slovenia. Questions over the primacy of EU law have been raised in a number of other countries, including Germany, where the constitutional court last year ruled that the ECJ had acted beyond its competences in a case related to bond-buying by the European Central Bank.

But Poland is the only country where the head of government has asked the constitutional court about the primacy of EU law.

The leaders of Belgium, the Netherlands and several Nordic countries demanded tough measures against Poland, arguing that the supremacy of EU law is fundamental to the functioning of the internal market.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte reiterated that Poland’s €36bn request for EU post-pandemic funds should not be approved by the commission until the judicial independence issue is settled.

Austrian chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said: “Poland has to take the financial threat quite seriously.”

Ahead of what is expected to be a long evening of talks, Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki held private meetings with Merkel, Sánchez and French president Emmanuel Macron.

Arriving at the summit, Morawiecki told reporters he was “ready for dialogue”, striking a more conciliatory tone than in a belligerent speech to the European parliament on Tuesday.

But he repeated Warsaw’s argument that EU institutions and the ECJ had exceeded their powers and that the gravity of the recent court ruling had been overblown by Brussels.

“We will not act under the pressure of blackmail,” he said. “We do not agree to the constantly expanding range of competencies [of the EU], but we will of course talk about how to resolve the current disputes through agreement and dialogue.”

“Poland . . . does not see any differences between us and other EU countries,” Morawiecki added. “We are as faithful to the rule of law as others and as the EU institutions.”

Additional reporting by Javier Espinoza in Brussels


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