The European Union has been preparing to block the Polish government’s access to the union funds for failing to pay some fines. But there is more than meets the eye.
The relations between the European Union and Poland have been increasingly deteriorating due to the latter rejecting the former's decisions on its judicial structure and a disputed coal mine.
The European Commission said on Wednesday that it will deduct the unpaid fines from EU funding bound for Poland due to its failure to shut down the controversial Turow coal mine near its Czech border, adding fuel to the long-standing tensions between Brussels and Warsaw.
Here are some ongoing disputes between the EU and Poland.
Turow coal mine
The European Court of Justice(ECJ) ruled last year that Poland should close the coal mine in Turow near the border with the Czech Republic.
Prague complains that the open pit mine drains groundwater from its villages near the border as well as causing pollution.
The court ordered Poland to pay a daily fine of 500,000 euros ($567,000) as long as it operates the mine.
After the ECJ’s ruling favouring the Czech government, Poland refused to close the mine saying it’s crucial for providing jobs and energy to the country. Warsaw also argued that the EU court had no authority to impose the fine.
The Polish government also said the planned enlargement mining area toward the Czech border fully complies with the laws, and former studies show it had minimal impact on groundwater levels.
Until now, both of the bloc members have not reached an agreement so far.
European Commission spokesperson Balazs Ujvari said Wednesday at a news briefing in Brussels that the deadline expired Tuesday for Poland’s first payment, and that the Commission is now beginning its “offsetting procedure.”
The first payment for coal totals €15 million ($17 million), in addition to €30,000 in interest.
"What the Commission needs to do now is to identify a suitable or appropriate payment against which the compensation can be made," Ujvari said.
"Following that, the Commission will deduct the amount concerned from the payment identified," he added.
In 2018, Poland’s annual payment to the EU was about €3.98 billion while it received €16.35 billion yearly from the union.
Once it does that, the Commission will inform Polish authorities and give them at least 10 working days to comment.
“And following that, the Commission will deduct the amount concerned from the payment identified,” Ujvari said.
The Polish and Czech governments have been holding talks in search of a solution to the problem but have still failed to reach a settlement.
Last month a new Polish ambassador to Prague was recalled after he criticised his own country’s approach to the dispute, alleging there had been arrogance and a “lack of empathy” on the Polish side.
Rule of law dispute
The European Commission has also sent a formal notice to Poland for paying some 70 million euros in fines for failing to back an illegal disciplinary regime for judges.
The case is one of the important disputes between the EU and Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came to power in 2015 and has since faced accusations of eroding democratic freedoms.
Last October the top EU court fined Warsaw for failing to immediately halt the work of the Polish Supreme Court's Disciplinary Chamber pending a final verdict on the scheme.
The EU believes the disciplinary system allows for political meddling in the courts and hence violates the 27-nation EU and Poland laws that establish judicial independence.
Commission spokesman Christian Wigand said on Thursday a "call for payment" had now been sent to Warsaw for failing to scrap the disciplinary regime as ordered by the European Court of Justice.
Sources told Reuters news agency earlier the fines amount to around 70 million euros and that the Commission would give Warsaw some 45 days to pay.
The union has blocked Poland from accessing billions of euros of the EU’s economic recovery fund for the pandemic.
Warsaw says the judicial overhaul was needed to make courts more efficient and rid them of communist influence. The nationalist PiS party also says it will not bow to what it calls EU blackmail.
A clash of values
LGBT rights and abortion laws were some of the issues that caused a wrangling between the EU and the country’s ruling conservatives.
In 2020, Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled abortions for fetal abnormalities are incompatible with the Polish constitution, amounting to a near-total ban. The ruling went into effect in January 2021, despite sparking the biggest protests in the country’s post-communist era.
The Catholic nation, which already had one of the strictest abortion laws in the EU, still allows abortions for pregnancies as a result of rape and where the mother’s life and health are at risk.
The EU doesn’t have competence on abortion rights within a member state but the decision still met some criticism by the bloc officials.
“...member states must respect fundamental rights which bind them by virtue of the constitutions and commitments under international law,” Helena Dalli, a Maltese politician serving as equality commissioner, said.
The anti-LGBT measures adopted in around 100 towns and villages of Poland also met with the EU backlash.