New Polish prime minister meets with EU leaders, aims to solidify ties

Poland's new prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki met with EU leaders for the first time in an effort to strengthen ties between Poland and the EU. Poland's controversial stance on refugees and issues of governance and rule of law have strained relations in recent years. 

Olivier Hoslet/Reuters
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (l.) and Czech Republic's Prime Minister Andrej Babis (r.) arrive at the Visegrad Group meeting in Brussels on Dec. 14, 2017. Mr. Morawicki met with EU leaders for the first time to strengthen ties and dispell concerns about the government in Poland.

Poland's new prime minister was making his debut Thursday at a European Union summit, a first test of whether the Western-educated former banker can bridge a deepening rift between his right-wing government and Brussels.

Mateusz Morawiecki was tapped last week by the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to replace Beata Szydlo. Her two years as prime minister were marked by bitter conflicts with the EU over migrants, the environment, and the state of Poland's democracy.

Poland's current isolation marks a sharp reversal for a country that has seen massive economic development since joining the EU in 2004 – which brought it an infusion of EU subsidies and foreign investment – and which until 2015 was an increasingly influential voice in European affairs. That growing clout was reflected in the election in 2014 of the Polish prime minister at the time, Donald Tusk, to lead the European Council.

Mr. Tusk leads the two-day EU summit that begins Thursday where leaders are to focus on Brexit, migration, and defense.

While Mr. Kaczynski has not explained his reasons for switching prime ministers, party members have suggested one aim was to improve the country's international standing.

As a communicator, Mr. Morawiecki certainly seems better fitted to the task. He is fluent in English and German, studied at universities in the United States and Germany, and for several years headed the Polish branch of a Spanish bank, Santander – experiences that give him a more cosmopolitan air than many in his conservative party.

Speaking to reporters, Morawiecki appeared conciliatory on Poland's extensive logging in the protected Bialowieza forest, a point of contention between Warsaw and EU officials. He said that if the EU court rules that the logging must stop, it will.

But he also made clear he was sticking to his predecessor's staunch refusal to accept any refugees as part of an EU resettlement plan.

"I am glad that our approach on refugees is becoming more and more understood in the European Union," Morawiecki said, following a statement by Tusk earlier this week that the EU's mandatary refugee quota system has been divisive and ineffective. He said his government supports an earlier policy of giving aid to refugees who stay closer to their homes.

"We want to help people affected by the war on the spot," he said to reporters in Brussels. "This support is more effective."

Yet recent developments in Warsaw will make it hard for Morawiecki to persuade his European counterparts to drop their concerns over the rule of law in Poland.

In a case that US State Department says raises concerns about media freedom, Poland's media regulator on Monday fined a private news channel nearly 1.5 million zlotys (US$420,000) for what it alleged was unfair reporting during a political crisis last year. The channel, TVN24, is the country's key source of independent television news.

Lawmakers last week also passed two new laws regulating the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary, a body that appoints judges, giving the ruling party control over both institutions. At the Supreme Court, the retirement age for judges was lowered from 70 to 65, which will force the immediate retirement of some 40 percent of more than 80 judges – allowing the president, a party ally, to name their replacements.

Law and Justice says it is seeking to purge the justice system of old communist holdovers and corrupt judges out of touch with regular people. Europe's top human rights body, the Council of Europe, disagrees, and said aspects of the laws bear similarities to the Soviet judicial system.

Morawiecki says he fully backs the changes. A former anti-communist dissident, he said recently some judges still working had passed judgments on his fellow activists in the 1980s.

In Brussels, he said: "Europe should be a Europe of sovereign states who should have the right to reform their justice systems."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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