Poland's ruling conservatives fired several senior ministers on Tuesday in an apparent move to patch up relations with the European Union.
Poland’s ruling conservatives fired several senior ministers on Tuesday in an apparent move to patch up relations with the European Union, strained over accusations that Warsaw is subverting the rule of law. Facing unprecedented EU legal action over the alleged politicisation of Poland’s judiciary, the Law and Justice (PiS) party may want to defuse tensions in other areas, such as environmental policy or defence. Shortly after announcing details of the government reshuffle, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki left for his first face-to-face talks with officials in Brussels, where his dinner with the head of the bloc’s executive arm, Jean-Claude Juncker, was due to finish late in the evening.
The Polish government changes came as the EU embarks on negotiations on a new seven-year budget that will decide which member states get what out of the bloc’s coffers – with Poland currently the biggest net recipient. President Andrzej Duda, acting on recommendations by Morawiecki, dismissed Environment Minister Jan Szyszko, who has spearheaded large-scale logging in an ancient forest that prompted action by the European Court of Justice. Also losing their job were Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz, a former anti-communist crusader facing criticism over delays in modernising the army as well as conflicts with top generals, and Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski.
The reshuffle followed the appointment of former bank CEO and finance minister Morawiecki as prime minister last month at the midpoint of the parliamentary term. PiS faces local elections in late 2018 and legislative and presidential ballots in 2019 and 2020. “The new (government) should help us build a sovereign Poland within a strong Europe, a Europe of homelands,” Morawiecki said in announcing the new appointments. The feud between Brussels and Warsaw’s eurosceptic government is among mounting tensions between wealthier western EU members and the ex-communist east, amid a wider debate over the bloc’s future provoked by Brexit.
Many westerners are keen for EU countries to integrate further in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave, but this is strongly opposed by eastern members like Poland and Hungary. EU states will on Feb. 27 look into whether Poland is backsliding on democracy. The top sanction of suspending Poland’s EU voting rights is unlikely to materialise, as Hungary has said it would block any such punishment. The 27 are likely to ask Warsaw to make amends, issuing recommendations echoing those by Brussels that the PiS has so far ignored, and giving it some time before deciding on more steps. Together with Warsaw’s refusal to host refugees, the PiS judicial overhaul is at the heart of the row with Brussels. Rights groups, western EU states and Poland’s political opposition say the government is undercutting the courts’ independence. In a sign that government policy is unlikely to change, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro kept his job in the reshuffle, and new rules give him powers to appoint the heads of lower-level courts as well as exercise oversight over prosecutors.
PiS says the reforms are needed because the country is steeped in a mentality and power structures dating from the post-war communist era. Szyszko had attracted widespread criticism domestically over moves to lift limits on hunting and for allowing massive logging in areas of Poland. The dismissed health minister has struggled to contain protests by medical staff in recent months. The outgoing defence minister has been the PiS investigator into the 2010 plane crash over Russia that killed President Lech Kaczynski – the twin brother of current PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski – and dozens of other senior Polish officials. Kaczynski and Macierewicz believe the crash may have been caused by foul play and not pilot error, which was the official cause returned by a investigation by the previous centrist government.