The Cable

EU Takes Poland to the Woodshed Over Rule of Law

For the first time in history, EU ministers had to discuss whether rule of law still prevails in a member state.

jaroslaw has seen some things

Poland made European Union history on Tuesday.

For the first time ever, EU ministers came together to discuss the state of the rule of law in a member country.

Poland, the country in question, had received a series of criticisms from Brussels over the course of 2016 about just how vibrant the rule of law really was there. The ruling party, Law and Justice, effectively took over the constitutional tribunal in December by refusing to seat those justices appointed by its predecessor, Civic Platform — meaning it blew off the EU’s concerns.

But apparently the vast majority of EU members think it’s still an open question, coming together Tuesday to discuss the issue, and vowing to keep talking with Warsaw about the rule of law.

“There was broad agreement around the table today that rule of law is a common responsibility and we should continue dialogue with Poland,” Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, told reporters.

European diplomats characterized the meeting to Politico Europe as a “small but significant step,” and the European Council released a statement saying, “Ministers emphasised the importance of continuing the dialogue between the Commission and Poland.”

Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Konrad Szymanski, seems happy to keep talking, but didn’t signal much willingness in Warsaw to change the government’s ways.

“A one-sided expectation that we will implement recommendations is not dialogue but diktat,” Szymanski said.

Poland wasn’t entirely isolated on the question. Hungary, Poland’s illiberal brother-in-arms, backed Poland in Tuesday’s discussions, and would likely block a vote to strip Warsaw of EU voting rights, a move that requires unanimity.

Hungary is also under EU pressure to shape up. Members of the European Parliament are reportedly coming closer to an agreement that they should somehow sanction Budapest over a law that would effectively shut Central European University, a violation of EU law on academic freedom.

And both Poland and Hungary received a June deadline from the EU to take responsibility for some share of migrants, or risk sanctions. Both countries have pushed back against Brussels’s plans to parcel out the responsibility for housing refugees from Africa and the Middle East to all member states to relieve some of the pressure currently largely borne by Greece and Italy.

Based on their behavior so far, both Poland and Hungary seem comfortable taking that risk. That will leave the ball in Brussels’ court — at a time when voters across Europe are reassessing just how much membership in the the European Union is really worth.

Photo credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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