EU welcomes Polish plan to address concerns about democratic backsliding

FILE - European Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova speaks during a news conference at the end of a European general affairs ministers meeting at the European Council building in Luxembourg, on June 22, 2021. Senior European Union officials on Tuesday Feb. 20, 2024 welcomed a plan by Poland’s new government to address concerns about democratic backsliding and expressed hope that it could end years of legal wrangling. (John Thys/Pool Photo via AP, File)

By LORNE COOK Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — Senior European Union officials on Tuesday welcomed a plan by Poland’s new government to address concerns about democratic backsliding and expressed hope that it could end years of legal wrangling.

Poland has been at loggerheads with the EU’s executive branch since the stridently nationalist Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 and implemented justice reforms that critics said placed Poland’s judiciary under political control.

In 2017, the European Commission launched a so-called Article 7 legal procedure, which threatened to suspend Poland’s EU voting rights “to protect the rule of law in Europe.” The commission has also blocked its access to billions of euros in EU funds over rule of law concerns.

Things changed after a more centrist government won elections in October, and put forward a plan to resolve the EU’s concerns.

“After six years of discussions, after six years of debate under Article 7, this is the first positive step forward which might see the closure of the procedure under Article 7,” European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova told reporters.

Her remarks came after Polish Justice Minister Adam Bodnar, a widely respected human rights and constitutional lawyer, presented an “action plan” to European affairs ministers gathered in Brussels which outlined draft legislation aimed at ending the standoff.

Bodnar argued that “there is no need to continue the Article 7 procedure against Poland as we are all fully engaged in restoring the rule of law.” If it addresses the commission’s concerns, his government’s plan could unlock access to billions of euros in frozen EU funds.

Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said that the ministers were “extremely positive” in their reaction.

“When there is a will, there is a way. It required a political change to finally have the presence here of the Polish justice minister,” she said, noting that the previous government’s justice minister never came to Brussels to address the issue.

But Jourova cautioned that “the action plan is a step in the direction which might lead to the closure of the Article 7 but there is much work to be done.”

Asked when the Article 7 process might be closed, Jourova said it would depend on specifics of the plan, how and when they are put into action, and the response of other member states.

“I have a dream: that it is still during my mandate,” she said. The commission’s term of office is due to end on Oct. 31, following EU-wide elections in June. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is campaigning for a second term of office, will travel to Warsaw on Friday.

Jourova, however, also underlined that some of the proposals in the Polish plan can’t become law without the approval of President Andrzej Duda, who is a staunch ally of the conservative Law and Justice party. His term runs until 2025.

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders warned that it would not be enough to roll back the previous government’s actions unless it’s done democratically.

Reynders told reporters that the commission and the government must “be sure that we are restoring the rule of law in Poland, after so many years of breaches to the rule of law, but in full respect of the rule of law. So we have a lot to do.”


Associated Press Writer Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed.