Merkel warns of ‘spiral’ in Brussels’ conflict with Poland

German chancellor Angela Merkel has said she is “deeply concerned” about the “ever-widening spiral” of conflict between Warsaw and Brussels over the rule of law.

In her last European summit in the role, Merkel gave an unusually gloomy assessment of the state of the EU.

“We have a whole series of unresolved problems and a lot of unfinished business for my successor,” she told reporters after a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels. “We have an unbelievable amount to do.”

Merkel, who is bowing out as chancellor later this year, was speaking after European leaders warned Poland that the EU was prepared to deploy further legal sanctions against Warsaw over its defiance of the bloc’s laws.

Merkel has sought to mediate, holding bilateral talks this week with Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, as did Emmanuel Macron, the French president. She said that in the discussions the two had expressed “our great concern that we must get out of this ever-widening spiral”.

It was the first face-to-face talks between EU heads of government since Poland’s top court ruled that parts of EU law are incompatible with the country’s constitution. The European Commission pledged to hit back against Warsaw, and government leaders meeting in Brussels this week voiced strong support for its stance.

“All the states are committed to the rule of law,” Macron said after the summit, who described his discussion with Morawiecki as “frank”. “We are now expecting concrete actions from the Polish government in order to avoid having to resort to all the pressure instruments at our disposal.”

The constitutional court ruling is considered a direct challenge to the union’s legal order, and marks the latest escalation in a five-year conflict between Brussels and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, or PiS, over judicial independence.

But as so often in conflicts between the commission and eastern European states, Merkel sought to strike a conciliatory tone. While acknowledging that the rule of law was a “core pillar” of Europe’s values, she insisted the dispute with Poland was “not just a judicial problem” and urged political talks to defuse the crisis.

“You can’t resolve big political differences through court cases,” she said. She also criticised the negative “tone” towards Poland adopted by some in the European Parliament, saying it was “not good”.

Merkel is retiring from politics after 16 years as chancellor. In elections last month her centre-right CDU/CSU bloc fell to the worst result in its history and will go into opposition. Merkel looks set to be succeeded by Olaf Scholz, the current finance minister, whose Social Democrats narrowly won the election and are trying to form a coalition with the liberals and Greens.

Merkel was unusually downbeat about the state of the EU, identifying disagreements over migration as a problem for the bloc alongside the rule of law crisis. “Migration . . . is something that we’re still very vulnerable to from outside,” she said.

She also said she was worried that Europe was falling behind the other big economic powers, particularly China. “The economic pressure, the fight over who is innovative, who is a world leader, has really intensified over the past few years,” she said.

Germany’s GDP had been slightly larger than China’s in 2005, the year she became chancellor, and now China’s economy was at least four times larger than Germany’s, she said. Europe was, she said, “no longer the most innovation-friendly continent”.

Echoing comments she had made earlier in the week, Merkel sought to deflect criticism from Poland, saying the rule of law conflict went to the heart of a much broader debate within Europe over “what should be in the EU’s competence and what in the competence of nation states”.

Asked after the summit if her softly-softly approach to Viktor Orban of Hungary and PiS in Poland had encouraged the authoritarian drift in those countries, she said: “From my perspective I always tried hard to solve problems. If others see that differently, I have to live with that.”

Additional reporting by Henry Foy

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