Why Brussels’ bid to mend ties with Warsaw is a risky move

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Unhappy employees — be they Belgian airport workers or French diplomats on strike — are never good news for top management, as Ursula von der Leyen certainly discovered in recent days. Her decision to turn a new page in relations with Poland did not go down well with a handful of commissioners, whose criticism cast a shadow over her visit to Warsaw yesterday. We’ll bring you the latest in the Polish recovery plan saga and the arguments both sides bring to the table.

As for the other capital at odds with Brussels, Budapest, ambassadors in Luxembourg struck a deal yesterday on the sixth sanctions package in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine with a concession to Hungary regarding the exclusion of Russian Patriarch Kirill from the travel ban and asset freeze list.

With China-EU relations on the rocks, we will also explore how the bloc is seeking to improve trade links with Taiwan, so far still a sensitive topic.

Controversial move

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen stressed yesterday that the commission’s decision to sign off Poland’s long-delayed recovery plan was linked to “clear commitments” on judicial independence, writes Sam Fleming in Brussels.

As the fierce internal debate over the decision showed, for many EU officials those pledges do not go nearly far enough.

Von der Leyen was in Warsaw to confirm the commission’s decision to give the green light to the country’s €36bn bid for its share of the €800bn post-Covid-19 recovery fund.

As von der Leyen explained, the commission’s decision to endorse the plan came subject to a number of rule-of-law conditions, without which Poland would not get any money.

These centre on three key reform commitments by Poland, embedded in its recovery and resilience plan, which must still be signed off by the EU member states:

  • Poland must abolish its disciplinary chamber for judges, which is seen in Brussels as a glaring infringement of judicial independence.

  • The disciplinary regime must be satisfactorily reformed .

  • And all judges affected by rulings of the disciplinary chamber must have the right to have their case reviewed by the replacement chamber.

The fact that Poland has signed up to all this, von der Leyen said, “is progress. But we are not at the end of the road on the rule of law in Poland.”

The internal ructions triggered by the commission president’s decision on the Polish recovery and resilience plan firmly underscore the latter point. Two of the commission’s three executive vice-presidents, Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager, voted against approving the plan on Wednesday, and other commissioners privately raised concerns over Poland’s commitment to addressing its rule-of-law violations.

The commission’s critics complain Brussels is setting far too low a bar for Poland as it prepares to hand over this vast sum of money — especially given scepticism on how many judges Poland will eventually reinstate.

The plan leaves unresolved a host of other rule-of-law disputes that will carry on festering between Brussels and the Polish coalition, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Brussels defends its handling of the Polish plan, with one senior EU official insisting that the set of milestones on rule of law constitutes a “really tight and clear definition of what we expect, and corresponds exactly to what the president has stated we want to achieve”.

There are, needless to say, greater political forces at play here. In particular, as von der Leyen said in her remarks in Warsaw, this was a “defining moment” for the EU, given the war in Ukraine. Poland is, in the commission president’s words, a “shining example” after its decision to welcome 3.5mn refugees from Ukraine.

Warsaw is also one of the most dogged advocates of harsh sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Bringing Poland closer into the fold, following more than half a decade of bitter arguments with Brussels over the rule of law, would constitute a significant prize for the commission.

Poland is also a country that is under intense economic pressure, meaning it urgently needs the EU cash. The potential award of such a large tranche of funding makes a strong statement of EU solidarity in the face of Moscow’s aggression.

The unresolved question is whether this marks a genuine turning point in the EU’s attempts to persuade Poland to converge with its key rule-of-law standards — or a false dawn.

Was the European Commission right in approving Poland’s spending plan? Tell us what you think and click here to take the poll.

Kirill me softly

EU ambassadors were not very amused yesterday for having to travel to Luxembourg for a rather brief and uncomplicated session in which they approved the sixth sanctions package against Russia, writes Valentina Pop in The Hague.

The concession to Hungary that brought the deal over the line was not a longer period in which the country can re-export oil products but rather the exclusion of Russian Patriarch Kirill from the asset freeze and travel ban list.

Hungary is a majority Catholic country (even if Viktor Orbán is Calvinist), not Orthodox — so that request may seem rather odd.

In a statement, Orbán’s office explained that given Kirill is a religious leader and the principle of religious freedom had to be respected, the Hungarian government “considers it inappropriate” to put him on the sanctions list. (Here is FT’s take on how Kirill has lent legitimacy to Putin’s war in Ukraine.)

Diplomats who had to shuttle to Luxembourg because of Hungary’s last-minute request were irritated at what one described as an “unnecessary stunt” that left Budapest more isolated than ever before. “Ambassadors were not too happy they had to travel all the way to Luxembourg to deliver absolution to a religious leader,” said another diplomat.

Chart du jour: Nurse gap

Bar chart of % change in the number of foreign-trained nurses practicing in the country (2020 compared with 2019) showing Richer countries lure nurses to fight shortages

The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of many countries’ reliance on foreign-trained nurses, including the UK’s, as travel stopped and international registration dropped to zero.

Trade with Taiwan

As EU relations with China are cooling, it is perhaps only natural that the bloc’s relations with Taiwan are warming up, writes Andy Bounds in Brussels.

The annual EU-Taiwan Trade and Investment Dialogue (TID) took place yesterday in Brussels involving a Taiwanese minister for the first time. Previous talks were between a deputy minister and a deputy director-general of DG Trade but they have been upgraded. Sabine Weyand, director-general for trade, met Mei-Hua Wang, Taiwan’s economy minister.

Brussels still has a One China policy that forbids full diplomatic relations with Taipei for fear of offending Beijing. But Wang hailed the upgrade as a breakthrough.

Taiwan has many of the things that the EU wants to avoid becoming too dependent on China for: high-tech research and manufacturing and a big semiconductor industry. The EU’s Chips Act offers subsidies to companies to build plants in Europe, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, one of the world’s largest chipmakers, has been considering it.

The two sides held discussions on a range of issues related to supply chains, security and technology as well as their policies on export control and investment screening.

Taiwan is the EU’s 15th-largest trading partner and the EU is the largest foreign investor in Taiwan.

But past promises of an agreement that would lower trade barriers between the two are still a step too far with a bilateral investment agreement still on ice, according to those familiar with the situation.

“Taiwanese investments in Europe have increased in recent months and we believe we are likely to see a further increase in view of Taiwan’s goal to diversify away from China to other parts of the world,” said an EU official.

An indication of how badly Beijing would react to any tentative trade agreement with Taiwan was already on display after Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open an office there: China blocked all imports from the country. The EU has complained to the World Trade Organization and talks are continuing.

What to watch today

  1. Ministers for trade and, separately, for telecommunications meet in Luxembourg

  2. Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier receives Hungary’s president Katalin Novák in Berlin

Smart reads

  • EU reboot: In this options paper, the European Policy Centre writes that war in Ukraine has opened a window of opportunity for the EU to transform its economic governance, strengthen EU-Nato co-operation, accelerate the bloc’s energy independence, refocus minds on the rule of law and redesign its enlargement and neighbourhood policy.

  • Oil embargo concerns: The partial oil embargo agreed by EU leaders earlier this week raises concern that by the time it enters into force it will have pushed prices higher, thus increasing revenue flows to Russia for several months, writes Bruegel.

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Valentina Pop

By Valentina Pop

Valentina Pop is the Europe Express editor, the FT's daily Europe newsletter. A polyglot journalist of Romanian extraction, she was previously with The Wall Street Journal, EUobserver and The Economist.

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