A senior European Commission official has criticised a decision by his colleagues to approve Poland’s Covid recovery plan, in comments that reveal the depth of concern about the rule of law in the central European country.
Frans Timmermans, a commission vice-president, who spent nearly four years leading EU efforts to safeguard independent courts in Poland, said the approval of Poland’s long-delayed Covid recovery plan last month was “incorrect”.
In an interview with the Guardian, he explained publicly for the first time why he voted against approving the plan despite the introduction of a Polish law aimed at bringing the country’s judicial system in line with European standards.
“I believe the legislation prepared and voted in the Polish parliament does not comply with the milestones that we had set, and there I am in the minority within the college [of EU commissioners],” he said.
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who championed approval of the plan, has said Poland will not get €35.4bn (£30bn) in EU grants and loans without further progress on judicial reforms.
Timmermans was speaking before Von der Leyen said last Friday that Poland had not done enough to get the first payment, because its new law did not meet EU standards on the independence of judges. “We are not done with the assessment of the whole law, but this part we see already is missing,” she said.
The decision to approve Poland’s long-delayed Covid recovery fund was a significant moment in the six-and-a-half-year dispute between Brussels and Poland’s rightwing nationalist government over the rule of law.
Last October, Von der Leyen set three conditions for releasing the funds: dismantling a disciplinary chamber for judges within Poland’s supreme court; changing the judicial disciplinary system; and reinstating judges suspended under new rules.
Legal experts have accused the commission of paying lip service to these milestones and rewarding Poland for making cosmetic changes. One of the biggest concerns, shared by Timmermans, is the reinstatement of judges who have risked their careers in defence of judicial independence.
Last year the European court of justice last year called for the immediate reinstatement of judges illegally suspended by a politically controlled disciplinary tribunal of the Polish supreme court.
The commission, however, has given Poland until the end of 2023. The process devised by Warsaw means suspended judges will have their cases examined by so-called “neo-judges” appointed under the new system.
An EU law professor, Laurent Pech of Middlesex University, has described the process as “akin to asking victims of a robbery to first request from a committee led by a majority of robbers a review of their robbery so as to eventually, but not necessarily, see the return of their stolen goods.”
Timmermans said the suspended judges should be reinstated without delay and without conditions. He said: “Now in the Polish system, as they have now decided, the judges who were illegally removed from their functions get the right to reapply for that function and that might take up to 18 months. Then the same people who decided that they were stripped of their function should then decide whether they get their function back. I don’t think that is a correct implementation of the European court of justice ruling and I believe we as the guardian of the treaty have the obligation to ensure a correct application.”
Another of Von der Leyen’s deputies, the Danish commission vice-president, Margrethe Vestager, also voted against the plan. The two commissioners responsible for EU judicial standards, Věra Jourová and Didier Reynders, opposed the decision but missed the vote.
Timmermans said he would now represent the majority view, because “as a member of that commission I am also responsible for that position”.