Poland's prime minister sacks ministers in move to mend ties with EU
Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, has dismissed several cabinet-level ministers as the ruling rightwing Law and Justice party seeks to improve strained relations with Brussels.
Law and Justice (PiS) is riding high in opinion polls, but remains under pressure from the European commission and several EU countries over its recent move to assert control over the country’s justice system.
In response to concerns that the rule of law was at risk in Poland, the European commission took the unprecedented step last month of initiating a process that could lead to the country being stripped of of its voting rights at EU institutions. Brussels has accused Warsaw of subverting the fundamental values expected of a democratic state by allowing political interference in its courts.
Morawiecki, a former finance minister, was appointed as prime minister in December, tasked with improving Poland’s deteriorating position in the EU.
“We are not and we don’t want to be a dogmatic, doctrinal government, or a government of socialist or neoliberal extremities,” he said on Tuesday during a swearing-in ceremony for the new ministers at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw.
The most high-profile of cabinet dismissals was that of Antoni Macierewicz, a veteran politician with ties to the radical nationalist right, whose tenure as defence minister was dogged by concerns over his radical restructuring of the armed forces, which put national security at risk. He will be replaced by Mariusz Błaszczak, who moves from interior ministry brief.
Macierewicz is probably best known in Poland as the most aggressive proponent of the claim that the 2010 Smolensk air disaster in western Russia plane crash that killed the country’s then president, Lech Kaczynski, and scores of senior Polish officials, was a Russian plot in collusion with PiS’s domestic political opponents. He regularly topped surveys of ministers Poles most wanted to see dismissed.
Morawiecki also dismissed the environment minister, Jan Szyszko, a former forester whose sanctioning of mass logging in Białowieża Forest – a Unesco world heritage site – was deemed to be in contravention of European law last year, with Poland facing daily fines of €100,000 (£88,000) if it failed to reverse course.
Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s foreign minister since 2015, will be replaced by Jacek Czaputowicz, a professor of international relations.
Waszczykowski, a career diplomat, is blamed by some within the PiS for having bungled the government’s relationship with the EU. But he will probably be best remembered in Poland as the founder of San Escobar, a non-existent country he claimed had expressed its support for Poland’s candidacy to serve as a non-permanent member of the UN security council.
However, Morawiecki kept as justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, the author of the sweeping changes of the justice system, in a sign he backs the moves.
Tuesday’s ministerial changes also come as the EU is about to embark on negotiations on a seven-year budget which will decide which member states get what out of the bloc’s coffers - with Poland currently the biggest net recipient.
Morawiecki meets the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, for dinner in Brussels on Tuesday night. Earlier in the day, Juncker offered an olive branch to Warsaw when he spelt out his opposition to cutting EU funds to Poland over concerns about the rule of law.
“I am in no mood to issue wild threats. I would like us to have a reasonable conversation,” he said in an interview with German broadcaster ARD.
Poland is the biggest beneficiary of European funds and around 60% of public investment is funded by the EU. As concerns rise about the rule of law in Poland and Hungary, a growing number of voices have said EU funds should be tied to meeting democratic standards.
The commission president invited the Polish leader to dinner in Brussels to search for a compromise. Poland was given three months to rethink changes to its judicial system.
The final step - suspending voting rights - has already been ruled out, as Hungary has vowed to veto the decision, but Brussels insiders think even a formal warning from a majority of other member states would have an effect.
Speaking shortly after the reshuffle was announced, Juncker’s spokesman said the commission wanted to engage with the new Polish government and prime minister. “We have intentionally provided for a period of three months that would allow this exchange to be a productive one without the spectre of pressure.”
With local elections scheduled later this year and a parliamentary election in 2019, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski also appears to be attempting to present a more moderate face to the Polish public.
Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office at the European Council of Foreign Relations, said the reshuffle was “mainly for domestic consumption”, with the secondary motive of sending a positive signal to the rest of Europe.
Since Morawiecki came to office he has increased Polish contributions to an EU-Africa fund aimed at deterring migrants, as well as promised to respect ECJ rulings on protecting the ancient Białowieża forest.
“These are symbolic issues, but it will not lead to changes on substance,” he said, predicting the Polish government would not back down on judicial reforms that have triggered the EU’s rule-of-law process.
“The Polish government cannot take back the reform now because it would be a disaster in the sense of political communication in Poland ... They would not be willing to do that, it is a no-go area.”