Ursula von der Leyen, Mateusz Morawiecki clash in European Parliament
Commission president and Polish prime minister face off in Strasbourg over Warsaw's repudiation of EU law.
STRASBOURG — With battle lines starkly drawn in the European Parliament plenary, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki clashed sharply Tuesday in a debate over Warsaw’s persistent challenges to EU rule-of-law principles.
Tuesday’s debate centered on a recent ruling by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal that was widely viewed in Brussels as undermining the EU’s fundamental legal order, by effectively declaring primacy of the national constitution over the EU treaties.
But the oratorical sparring in Strasbourg was really just the latest showdown in a long-running battle, in which the Polish government has taken steps that have eroded the independence of the judiciary and the European Commission has struggled — but so far failed — to compel changes and compliance with the bloc’s democratic norms.
Describing Poland’s emergence from Communist rule and its transition to democracy as an EU member country, von der Leyen said: “The people of Poland wanted democracy … they wanted the freedom to choose their government, they wanted free speech and free media, they wanted an end to corruption and they wanted independent courts to protect their rights.”
“This is what Europe is about and that is what Europe stands for,” she added. “The recent ruling of the Polish Constitutional Court puts much of it into question.”
But while von der Leyen said the situation has only grown worse amid Commission enforcement efforts, she announced no new concrete steps, even as many in Parliament are pressuring the Commission to trigger a new mechanism that could, after a lengthy process, potentially cut off some EU budget funds to Warsaw.
Some senior leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have urged further dialogue and cautioned against quick enforcement action by Brussels.
Von der Leyen said her team was still studying the Polish constitutional court’s decision. “The European Commission is at the moment carefully assessing this judgement but I can already tell you today I am deeply concerned,” she said, adding: “We cannot and will not allow our common values to be put at risk.”
For his part, Morawiecki alleged discrimination against Poland and accused other EU countries of taking a selective approach in the adherence to fundamental principles and to the enforcement of EU rules.
He also insisted that the ruling of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal should be of no particular concern, while accusing Brussels of overstepping its authority and trying to create a supranational state without the consent of member countries.
“The highest law in the EU is the constitution of a country,” Morawiecki said.
“The EU will not fall apart simply because our legal systems will be different,” he said at another point, adding: “If you want to make a non-national superstate out of Europe, first get the consent of all the European states and societies.”
But at other points, Morawiecki offered seemingly contradictory praise for the EU, highlighting his government’s predicament in repeatedly challenging the EU on rule-of-law principles, even as an overwhelming majority of the Polish population supports the country’s EU membership.
He called the EU “a strong political and economical organism,” then added: “It is the strongest best developed international organization in history, but the EU is not a state.”
And he repeatedly griped about alleged discrimination against Poland by Brussels and other EU capitals, asking : “Why there are different decisions and verdicts taken regarding different member states of the EU?”
Morawiecki exceeded his allotted speaking time, prompting warnings from Parliament Vice President Pedro Silva Pereira, who was presiding over the plenary, but in the end let the prime minister finish.
“Thank you prime minister,” Silva Pereira said, as Polish members of the European Parliament cheered and applauded Morawiecki. “You will take note that I was extremely flexible with the allocated time so that nobody can say that you didn’t have time enough to give explanations to the European Parliament,” he added. “But respect of the allocated time is also a way of showing respect for this house of the European democracy.”
Zosia Wanat contributed reporting.