Poland closer to EU aid as Brussels backs recovery plan despite doubts

Brussels has backed Poland’s long-delayed economic recovery plan, potentially unlocking billions of euros for Warsaw, despite doubts within the European Commission over its commitment to legal reforms.

Warsaw submitted its pitch for a share of the €800bn NextGenerationEU Covid-19 recovery fund in May last year, proposing to tap as much as €36bn of EU grants and loans. Its bid has been held up by a protracted dispute with the commission over Polish rules that Brussels believes undermine the independence of its judiciary.

Paolo Gentiloni, economics commissioner, confirmed the plan had been adopted in a commissioners’ vote in Brussels on Wednesday.

However, Margrethe Vestager and Frans Timmermans — two of the commission’s three executive vice-presidents — voted against the decision, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Their high-level opposition underlines concerns within Brussels over Poland’s willingness to uphold EU standards on the rule of law.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is expected to travel to Warsaw on Thursday to confirm the decision, which also needs to be approved by the EU member states.

Von der Leyen last year set out three important changes that Brussels wants as conditions for payments under the Polish recovery plan: dismantling a chamber with the power to discipline judges, overhauling the disciplinary regime and reinstating dismissed judges.

The commission has been locked in talks with Warsaw over introducing those reforms to its recovery and resilience plan (RRP) as conditions for payments. Early this year Polish president Andrzej Duda put forward a bill to scrap the disciplinary chamber for judges. Poland’s parliament is still debating the legislation.

Speaking to reporters, Gentiloni said the commission was confident that if EU member states implemented the decision then Poland would make good on its commitments. “Of course we will assess this fulfilment very, very strongly,” he added.

However, Wednesday marked the first time commissioners have had to vote on a decision to adopt a member state’s Covid-19 recovery plan.

Didier Reynders, the justice commissioner, was not present for the vote but he wrote to colleagues saying he had “substantial doubts” over Poland’s willingness to reinstate suspended judges. The commission’s decision on the plan should not be seen as an endorsement of the draft legislation on the disciplinary chamber currently being discussed in Poland, he added.

Reynders also stressed in the letter, seen by the Financial Times, that the milestones in Poland’s recovery plan addressed only some of the concerns surrounding judicial independence, and that “more remains to be done”.

Vera Jourova, a commission vice-president, wrote a separate letter stressing how important it was for Brussels to “fully assess” the situation in Poland before the money was paid out, according to an EU official with direct knowledge of the letter.

Von der Leyen is eager to bring Poland back into the fold, given its role as both a haven for Ukrainian refugees and vocal advocate for a tough response to Russia’s invasion. The EU has also been seeking to win Polish backing for a directive implementing the global deal on a minimum effective corporate tax rate.

Some EU diplomats argue the commission is right to move things forward, given that Poland will not receive any money from the fund if it does not reach the rule-of-law milestones. Poland lost the opportunity to clinch guaranteed pre-financing last year because it failed to win approval of its recovery plan by December.

“The first time Poland gets any money is if they reach their milestones and the commission assesses that they have fulfilled them sufficiently,” said one EU diplomat. “It is in the hands of the commission themselves to prove their worth on this.” 

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