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Brussels heads for showdown with Poland over rule of law

Brussels heads for showdown with Poland over rule of law

Poland and Brussels are poised for a showdown in their battle over the EU’s power to sanction member states accused of sliding into authoritarianism or corruption.

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s vice-president, will hold last-ditch talks in Warsaw on Monday ahead of a crucial EU hearing on Poland’s observance of the rule of law — potentially opening the way to the first member state censure.

Such a rebuke would set up a further possible clash between EU countries over whether to impose sanctions on Poland, including the suspension of its voting rights. Hungary, after its own disputes with Brussels over the rule of law, has said it will block any countermeasures against Warsaw, which would require unanimity.

The next few weeks could reshape Poland’s relationship with the EU, at a time when the bloc is strained by pressure over migration and its disputes over trade and foreign policy with President Donald Trump’s administration.

One EU diplomat said he feared the Poland case had exposed a sharp divergence of views around the bloc on “what rule of law means”.

“If our starting points are fundamentally different, we may never find an understanding,” the diplomat said. “This is the fifth-largest member state. It is not something you can easily contain.”

The Poland dispute has become urgent because of Warsaw’s planned overhaul of the country’s supreme court which will take effect on July 3. The move would force more than one-third of the court’s judges to retire. This and other changes to the Polish judicial system have led Brussels to charge that Warsaw is endangering the rule of law — a fundamental EU tenet. Poland has said it is overhauling an inefficient system that has not adequately been reformed since communist times.