EU gets closer to unlocking Poland recovery plan

Good morning and welcome to Europe Express.

Negotiations are inching forward as Poland seeks to land a deal with the European Commission over its bid for a €36bn slice of the recovery fund. We’ll look at the signs of progress, and ask if Warsaw will give the assurances on judicial independence necessary to unlock a deal in the coming days. Even if it does, the country will still not be off the hook next year (looking at you, Berlin).

Over in Strasbourg, the refusal by Turkish authorities to release a jailed businessman and philanthropist could cost Ankara diplomatically, as the Council of Europe is considering steps today that may end up with the withdrawal of the country’s voting rights in the inter-governmental human rights body.

In EU woke news, the commission yesterday recalled its internal document on inclusive communication (we wrote about it here), describing it as “not a mature document” and failing to meet the commission’s “quality standards”. The document prompted a backlash in Italy over the recommendation that EU officials talk of ‘holidays’ instead of ‘Christmas’.

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Getting there?

It’s now over half a year since Poland submitted a bid for €36bn of grants and loans from the EU’s recovery fund. As the year nears its end, some diplomats spy signs of progress as the commission considers whether to sign off on the plan, write Valentina Pop, Sam Fleming and James Shotter.

Clinching EU sign-off before the year-end would enable Warsaw to tap into billions of euros of pre-financing. However, as we enter December, the window is perilously narrow.

Poland has made some concessions in talks with Brussels over the past few weeks, but the remaining gap is still a serious one.

It’s noteworthy that the incoming coalition government in Berlin has been striking a much harsher tone when it comes to rule of law matters than the outgoing German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

The new coalition agreement makes it clear that Germany will not want to see any EU money disbursed if the independence of the judiciary is not ensured. That suggests it will insist on Brussels taking a tough line in holding Poland to its reform commitments if the plan is approved.

As things stand, the main sticking points include calls for the reinstatement of suspended Polish judges, and demands for written guarantees about the nature of any regime that replaces the Polish disciplinary chamber for judges, which the EU wants to see dismantled.

Meeting those requirements will not be easy. The hardline Polish justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, is trying to amp the pressure on the country’s prime minister to not give in to the EU’s demands.

“The European Commission does not just want the scrapping of the chamber, but also the annulment of almost 600 rulings issued by it. I will never accept that,” he said in an interview earlier this week with the rightwing magazine Sieci.

“Poland is supposed to pay €1m per day because it does not want to allow such judges to return to the judicial bench . . . This is what the EU expects from us today — to return them, discontinue the proceedings [against them] and presumably also pay compensation. That is unimaginable,” he added.

Nevertheless, as the year-end nears, the political pressure is also rising on Ziobro and his allies to relent — and soon — in order to allow the EU cash to finally start flowing.

Chart du jour: Record high

Inflation in the eurozone rose to 4.9 per cent in November, a record high since the single currency was created, mainly driven by soaring energy prices. The rise is likely to put more pressure on the European Central Bank to reduce its monetary stimulus. (More here)

Sanctioning Turkey

There were nerves among European diplomats in the run-up to a debate on Turkey today at the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body, writes Laura Pitel in Ankara.

Some feared that they would struggle to secure the 32 votes needed to follow through on a pledge to reprimand the country for refusing to implement an order by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to release Osman Kavala, a jailed businessman and philanthropist.

Kavala, 64, has spent the last four years behind bars despite not being convicted of any crime.

Failing to approve a motion to launch “infringement proceedings” against Turkey would have been a “disaster” for the credibility of the Council of Europe, which oversees the ECHR, one European official warned.

That was echoed by human rights groups, which said that refusing to censure Turkey would not only send the wrong message to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but also to other autocrats across the continent.

“This is a test of the entire human rights system that governs Council of Europe member states,” said Milena Buyum, a senior campaigner on Turkey at Amnesty International. “It’s obviously very crucial for the individual involved — in this case Osman Kavala — but it will also have an impact on the whole system of human rights that these countries are bound by.”

After intense lobbying by both sides, those in favour of being tough on Erdogan now expect that the 47-member body will back a proposal to launch “infringement proceedings” against Turkey when they vote tomorrow after a debate that takes place today.

EU member states are expected to be divided on the issue, with Poland among those said to be considering a vote against, said two people familiar with the behind-the-scenes discussions. A spokesperson for the Polish foreign ministry declined to comment.

The infringement process is likely to be long and arduous but could ultimately lead to a suspension of Turkey’s voting rights or even expulsion from the Council of Europe if it continues to refuse to release Kavala.

The proposal is only the second time that infringement proceedings have been brought against one of the institution’s 47 member states since the mechanism was introduced in 2010.

The first instance was against Azerbaijan, which was reprimanded in 2017 for refusing to implement an ECHR order to release jailed opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov. He was later released and acquitted of the charges against him.

What to watch today

  1. European Commission presents the Global Gateway strategy to counterbalance Chinese investments abroad

  2. The OECD publishes its economic forecast and analysis for member countries and major economies

  3. Final day of Nato foreign ministers’ meeting in Riga

Notable, Quotable

  • Afghan refugees: A growing number of men and children fleeing the Taliban after the west’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan have joined those seeking to make the perilous journey over the Channel into the UK, report the FT’s Anna Gross from Dunkirk and Robert Wright in London.

  • French-American hero: US-born entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker has become the first black woman to be memorialised in the Panthéon in Paris — an honour bestowed by the French president on those seen as national heroes.

  • Greek climate law: Greece is to introduce its first climate law, pledging to cut the country’s reliance on coal within six years as part of a move to a carbon “net zero” economy by 2050. The law comes after Greece suffered devastating wildfires this year that were attributed partly to global warming,

  • Russian sabre-rattling: President Vladimir Putin warned the west against crossing Moscow’s “red lines” in Ukraine and said Nato was threatening Russia’s security by holding exercises and deploying weapons near its borders.

  • Zemmour candidacy: Éric Zemmour, the anti-immigration polemicist, has declared his bid for the French presidency with an appeal to those he said were scorned by elites and felt like strangers in their own country. The formal launch of his campaign comes as his popularity appears to be declining.

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Today’s Europe Express team: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]. Follow us on Twitter: @Sam1Fleming, @JamesShotter, @laurapitel, @valentinapop.

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