Norway’s new government minister in charge of relations with the EU traveled to Warsaw on Wednesday, to formally hand over more development funds. Marit Berger Røsland’s visit took place on the very day, though, that the EU threatened to take away Poland’s voting rights because of its conservative government’s controversial reforms.
The EU Commission proposed, for the first time ever, to activate a punitive measure that can be used against countries that violate the EU’s fundamental values regarding democracy and human rights. The move comes after the Polish government’s recent crackdowns on civilian society and, most recently, reforms of Poland’s court system that now threaten to make it subject to political control.
The judicial and legislative branches of EU member nations are supposed to be strictly separated. Poland’s populist, right-wing government, however, intends to replace the country’s current Supreme Court judges with new judges of its choice. That, claimed the vice-president of the EU Commission Frans Timmermans, violates EU principles.
Invoking Article 7 of the EU treaty, which would withdraw Poland’s voting rights at the EU, would be done “for Poland and the country’s citizens, so that they can rely on a completely independent court in their country,” Timmermans was reporting as saying on Wednesday. “That’s an important foundation for EU principles.”
EEA concerns, too
Poland has been the scene of numerous demonstrations by Polish citizens against their increasingly authoritarian government. Norway’s concerns about political developments in Poland delayed disbursement of the financial aid it extends to the country in partnership with Iceland and Liechtenstein. The three non-EU members, through their membership in the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS) are obligated to pay EUR 2.8 billion to the EU for the period 2014-2021 in order to be part of its inner market.
The money is shared by 15 recipient countries, with Poland getting the largest share of the money (EUR 809.3 million). Norway finances around 98 percent of the EEA budget, while Iceland and Liechtenstein contribute the remainder. Poland has received financial aid in the form of EEA funding ever since it became a member of the EU in 2004: EUR 558.6 million from 2004 to 2009, another EUR 578.1 million from 2009 to 2014 and, now, EUR 809.3 million for the period 2014 to 2021.
Norway’s new EU/EEA minister Røsland admitted that negotiations for the current disbursement have been “demanding.” Polish authorities wanted their government to be able to control how the money would be spent. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) had reported in October that Poland’s government didn’t want any of the money donated to Poland by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein to go feminists, gay rights groups or others who did not conform to the government’s deeply conservative profile.
Norway and its EEA partners demanded, however, that funding must be managed by independent organizations that would funnel it to intended recipients in a wide variety of areas from business development and innovation, to research, education, health care, the environment, culture and civilian society.
The largest single chunk of funding is earmarked for programs within energy, the environment and climate, and research.
“I’m especially glad that we have secured a continuation of independent and strong support to civilian society,” Røsland stated. The money (EUR 53 million) will be divided into two portions, one national and one regional, with both led by independent operators with no ties to Polish authorities or the government.
Norway’s foreign ministry called Poland “an important trading partner” and noted how people from Poland make up the largest single immigrant group in Norway. The EEA/EØS funding is meant to strengthen bilateral relations between Norway and Poland in many sectors, with several Norwegian agencies and organizations including Innovation Norway, the Norwegian Research Council, the Health Directorate and justice ministy carrying out and monitoring programs. “It’s important to further develop and create new networks that can contribute positively, especially at a time when some developments in Poland create reason for concern,” the ministry stated.
Punishment can be blocked
There was no immediate comment on the EU’s prospect of punitive action against Poland. Polish government authorities reportedly dismissed it, calling it a “political” decision and suggesting it came in retaliation for Poland’s refusal earlier this year to not take in Muslim migrants in line with EU quotas.
The Associated Press reported that Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro acknowledged the EU’s threat and insisted Poland was a “law-abiding country.” He claimed Poland would move forward with its controversial “reforms.”
His confidence in doing so is likely based on the need for unanimous agreement among members of the EU ministerial council that Poland be stripped of its voting rights. The Hungarian government, which also has become increasingly authoritarian and defied EU policy, is likely to come to Poland’s aid and block such a vote.