EU Leaders Fear Polish Exit Following Court Ruling

BRUSSELS — Senior officials from two founding members of the European Union expressed fears Friday that a Polish ruling challenging the supremacy of EU laws could trigger the country's exit from the 27-nation bloc.

France's Europe minister Clement Beaune insisted that the move is an attack against the EU, while Luxembourg minister of Foreign and European affairs Jean Asselborn said Poland is "playing with fire."

The head of the EU's executive branch, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, said she is "deeply concerned" by the ruling and pledged a a swift analysis of its meaning before taking action. She also hinted at possible business disruptions with Poland. 

"Our utmost priority is to ensure that the rights of Polish citizens are protected and that Polish citizens enjoy the benefits granted by membership of the European Union, just like all citizens of our Union," von der Leyen said. "Moreover, EU citizens as well as companies doing business in Poland need the legal certainty that EU rules, including rulings of the European Court of Justice, are fully applied in Poland."

They spoke a day after Poland's constitutional court ruled that Polish laws take precedence over those of the bloc. The ruling further escalated lingering tensions over democratic standards between the country's right-wing nationalist government and Brussels institutions. 

"It's extremely serious, it's not a technical issue, or judicial issue. It's an eminently political issue, which is part of a long list of provocations toward the European Union," Beaune told BFM television.

Beaune said Poland has an obligation to respect its commitment to the EU, which has been approved by the Polish people.

"When you sign a contract with someone and you say 'my own rule, which I define when I want and how I want, is worth more than what I signed with you,' then there is no more contract. No more participation. So it is very serious, because there is a risk of a de facto exit," he said.

The tribunal majority ruling — in response to a case brought by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki — said Poland's EU membership since 2004 did not give the European court supreme legal authority and did not mean that Poland had shifted its legal sovereignty to the EU.

Morawiecki had asked for the review after the European Court of Justice ruled in March that Poland's new regulations for appointing judges to the Supreme Court could violate EU law. The ruling obliged Poland's government to discontinue the rules that gave politicians influence over judicial appointments. To date, Poland has not done so.

Beaune said he does not want Poland to leave, echoing a sentiment largely shared in Brussels and in Poland, where Morawiecki recently called "fake news" a potential so-called Polexit.

Ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski recently said Poland wants to be in the EU, but in an EU that respects its own rule and treaties, meaning the independence of member states within the bloc. And in mid-September, the Law and Justice party adopted a resolution stating that Poland wants to be in.

"You know that in Poland the people are European, and that they want to stay European," Asselborn said. "But it must be said quite clearly that this government in Poland is playing with fire. That means that at a certain moment there can be a break not only legally but also politically."

As guardian of the EU treaties, the European Commission reaffirmed after the ruling that EU law has primacy over national law, including constitutional provisions, and pledged to "make use of its powers to safeguard the uniform application and integrity of Union law."

Last month, the EU's executive branch asked the European Court of Justice to impose daily fines on Poland until it improves the functioning of the Polish Supreme Court and suspends new laws that were deemed to undermine judicial independence.

Depending on how the Polish government decides to use the latest ruling, the Commission has further financial options at its disposal to try to make Warsaw comply with EU law, notably by continuing to hold up the country's access to billions of euros in European money to help revive its economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The commission could also activate a mechanism allowing the suspension of payments of EU money to a member country suspected of not adhering to the bloc's standards.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Germany's Funke newspaper group that "the European Commission has our full support for its task of enforcing European law everywhere in the EU."

"Being a member of the European Union means that we pursue common values, benefit from a strong common internal market and speak with one voice," Maas said. "But it also means that we keep to common rules that form the foundation of the European Union, with all the consequences of that," he added.


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