Poland praises likely new EU Commission head, eyes better ties with Brussels

FILE PHOTO: Polish Foreign Minister Czaputowicz speaks at Lazienki Palace in Warsaw

By Joanna Plucinska

KATOWICE, Poland (Reuters) - Poland's foreign minister praised the "non-confrontational" style of the EU's nominee to head the next European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and signalled that he looked forward to improved ties between Warsaw and Brussels on her watch.

The executive Commission has long accused Poland's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) of flouting EU standards on the rule of law and democracy. But Poland's biggest critic in Brussels, Dutch Socialist Frans Timmermans, lost to von der Leyen in the race for the top Commission job, causing huge relief in Warsaw.

Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said he believed his government would work well with von der Leyen, who is from the centre-right and currently defence minister in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition.

"She (von der Leyen) is conciliatory, non-confrontational, accepting of many points of view. She has this sensitivity, something that in Poland is well-liked...," Czaputowicz told Reuters in an interview authorised for release on Tuesday.

Poland's relations with Germany have been particularly strained in recent years, with PiS reviving calls for World War Two reparations. Berlin says all financial claims linked to the brutal Nazi occupation of Poland have been settled.

Czaputowicz said he was confident that Brussels would drop its legal procedure against Poland under Article 7 of the EU treaty due to a lack of support among other member states.

The procedure could theoretically lead to Poland losing its voting rights in the European Council but its ally Hungary - also at loggerheads with Brussels over the rule of law - has made clear it would veto any such move against Warsaw.


"I believe this conflict (over the rule of law in Poland) has been won by us," he said, though he also acknowledged that further hearings under the procedure are likely to take place.

"I've spoken with ministers (from other member states). They simply don't agree with the Commission's line... they see that Poland is following the rule of law," Czaputowicz added.

Following a ruling from the European Court of Justice, some of the changes to the Polish judiciary system have been rolled back, including a law that forced Supreme Court judges into early retirement.

But despite Czaputowicz's upbeat tone, critics say Poland still needs to do more to ensure judicial independence. They also fear that PiS will embark on even deeper reforms of the judicial system if they win a new mandate in a parliamentary election due later this year.

EU officials say Warsaw and Budapest are mistaken if they believe that a new Commission under von der Leyen - who must still be confirmed in the post by the European Parliament - will prove a softer touch when it comes to defending EU values.

"She may not want to play the leading role (in the various legal actions) so as not to antagonise the Poles. But in one possible scenario, she could even have Timmermans lead these cases again in the next Commission," one EU official said.

Czaputowicz said Poland hoped to win an important portfolio such as competition, energy or the economy in the next Commission, but EU diplomats say Warsaw has hurt its own chances with its protracted legal and political battles with Brussels.

They also point to growing frustration among wealthy net payers to the EU budget such as Germany and France over the refusal of Poland and some other ex-communist member states to cooperate over issues from the rule of law to climate change.

Poland may therefore face cuts in the generous funding it now receives as the EU seeks to divert more money to combating global warming and dealing with inflows of migrants to the bloc.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in BRUSSELS, Editing by Krisztina Than and Gareth Jones)