BRUSSELS -- European Union leaders pressured a defiant Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki Thursday to fall back into line on recognizing that EU law trumps national decision-making, hoping that dialogue will stave off a crisis in the bloc.
Morawiecki instead painted a picture of an overbearing union that treats its 27 member nations as mere provinces, usurping ever more powers and imposing its values against the wishes of sovereign peoples.
Facing the threat of losing out on tens of billions of EU funds because of his stance, he countered that Poland “will not act under the pressure of blackmail.”
Almost all other countries replied that respecting common rules and values is essential in a bloc if it is not to unravel and lose political and economic clout in the world.
“If you want to be part of a club and have the advantages of a club, you must play by the rules,” said his Belgian counterpart Alexander De Croo. “A red line has been breached and we cannot accept that.”
According to a senior official with direct knowledge of the talks, the debate on rule of law took place in a “serene" atmosphere as EU leaders stopped short of adopting confronting stances once gathered in the same room. The official spoke anonymously according to EU practice.
Most member states supported dialogue with Morawiecki, while agreeing that the bloc should act to try and make Warsaw comply with EU law, the official said.
Beyond holding up Poland’s access to billions of euros in help revive its economy in the wake of the pandemic, the EU’s executive arm can start infringement procedures, or activate a mechanism allowing the suspension of other EU payments to a member country breaching the principles of the rule of law.
The dispute stems from a recent ruling from Poland's constitutional court challenging the supremacy of EU laws.
EU lawmakers assembled in Strasbourg adopted a resolution Thursday stating that the Polish court “lacks legal validity and independence, and is unqualified to interpret the country’s constitution."
They insisted the EU should protect Polish citizens and reiterated calls for the bloc to use all its tools to restore the rule of law in the country, including by putting the Polish coronavirus recovery plan on hold.
If the sniping and accusations continue unchecked, it could turn into the biggest institutional crisis for the EU since the United Kingdom decided to leave five years ago.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as a longtime champion of compromise, warned against a protracted political and legal fight that could hurt all, especially at a time when the bloc is trying to emerge from the biggest economic crisis in its history.
“We must find ways and possibilities to come together again on this, because a cascade of legal disputes before the European Court of Justice is not a solution,” she said.
France threw itself behind Merkel. Ahead of the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron had a brief meeting with Morawiecki. He told the Polish prime minister he is concerned about the situation and also asked him to engage in a dialogue to find “a solution compatible with our common principles and rules.”
Morawiecki also appeared to shy back from some of the harsh language used in the European Parliament on Tuesday. “We are ready for dialogue,” he said. “We will of course talk about how to resolve the current disputes in agreement and in dialogue.”
He said the key quarrel was about EU claims for legal primacy in areas where he argued that the bloc does not have competence.
EU nations have warned for years against what they see as a backsliding of democratic principles in Poland when it comes to an independent judiciary and free media.
They said Morawiecki's conservative PIS government stacked the constitutional court with handpicked judges and then had the same court challenge the supremacy of EU law, arguing it should be subordinate to key national values in cases where they diverge.
It is reminiscent of the power play between nationhood and the EU which also set Britain on course for Brexit. The extent of the legal move of Poland's constitutional court to question the supremacy of EU law is unprecedented however, officials said.
Morawiecki defended his country’s stance that the highest law in Poland is its own constitution. And he has a vocal ally in Hungary.
“Poland? the best country in Europe. Oh, there’s no need to have any sanctions. It’s ridiculous,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban said. Hungary has also been accused of democratic backsliding over the years under Orban and is often shunned.
The EU aims to present a united front that makes its 27 nations a formidable power in the world, while as individual countries they would be bystanders. But even if member states are happy to see that power used in international relations, some abhor it when it affects them.
Geir Moulson in Berlin, Mike Corder in The Hague and Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed.