BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s executive branch on Wednesday approved Poland’s pandemic recovery fund, paving the way for the release of billions of euros in grants and loans, even as lawmakers expressed deep unease about democratic backsliding in the country.
The long-delayed decision, which must be approved by EU member states within four weeks, would see the nationalist government in Warsaw given access to 23.9 billion euros ($25.4 billion) in grants and 11.5 billion euros ($11.7 billion) in loans.
The European Commission said that Poland’s plan includes “milestones” that must be met on the independence of the judiciary. Brussels said this is vital for investor confidence and to help the country’s economic recovery.
“Poland needs to demonstrate that these milestones are fulfilled before any disbursement under the (pandemic fund) can be made,” the commission, which proposes EU laws and supervises the way they are enacted, said in a statement.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is due to travel to Warsaw on Thursday to publicly announce the move.
The announcement came after a centrist group in the European Parliament demanded an “urgent” explanation Wednesday amid reports the Commission was prepared to release billions of euros to Poland's government.
Renew Europe, a centrist group in the European Parliament, said it was concerned by reports of a deal despite Poland's "consistent trashing of the rule of law."
Poland's lower house of parliament voted last week to abolish a disciplinary body within the Polish Supreme Court that the right-wing government has used to suspend judges for rulings or public statements it did not like.
Associations of judges and human rights groups say the changes were only perfunctory because the powers of the soon-to-be abolished Disciplinary Chamber will continue to be carried out by judges who are effectively political appointees.
Before last week’s vote, the chamber had suspended judges for issuing rulings respecting EU law as well as the rulings of another international court, the European Court of Human Rights.
“Our group urgently demands a detailed explanation from European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen,” Renew Europe said. “We should not accept merely small, inadequate cosmetic changes to Poland’s seriously politicized legal system in exchange for the EU funds. We won’t be able to stand up to autocrats abroad by placating those who unravel democracy at home."
The Disciplinary Chamber has cost Poland dearly. The European Court of Justice fined Poland a record 1 million euros per day for failing to dismantle it. Poland also failed so far to get the 36 billion euros in recovery funds that are intended to reboot EU economies after pandemic lockdowns.
Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch lawmaker with Renew Europe, said von der Leyen appeared to be pulling back from a promise not to compromise on the rule of law.
"Exactly such a compromise is now in the works with Poland: a short-term political deal with lasting irreparable damage to the EU as a community of laws” in ’t Veld said.
A Polish lawmaker, Róża Thun, added that Poles undertook efforts to join the EU expecting it to guarantee democratic values. If those values are not protected, Thun said she fears the 27-nation bloc “will start to rot.”
“We struggled against the communist oppression because we wanted to live in a democratic country which respects the rule of law," she said.
John Morijn, a law professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, said the EU releasing funds now would be a “purely political move” and highly damaging for both Polish judges and the standing of the European Court of Justice.
Gera reported from Warsaw.
Lorne Cook And Vanessa Gera, The Associated Press