Polish PM sacks key ministers, holds ‘friendly’ meeting with Juncker

Poland’s new right-wing Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki sacked his defence and foreign ministers in a major cabinet reshuffle yesterday (9 January), as he seeks to mend strained ties with the country’s EU partners.

The prime minister held talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker late yesterday, weeks after the EU launched an unprecedented disciplinary procedure against Warsaw over its controversial judicial reforms, which Brussels says threaten the rule of law.

The pair held “a detailed discussion of questions related to the Rule of Law”, according to a statement released by the European Commission following the meeting.

It described the talks as “constructive” and said they also touched on a variety of issues including “the future of the European Union, the Polish position within the European Union” and economic, energy and migration policy.

“Our intention is to make the system more effective, more just, more objective,” Morawiecki told a news conference defending PiS moves on the courts after nearly three hours of talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

A joint statement with the EU’s executive said the dinner was “friendly” and included a “detailed discussion” on the rule of law issues in Poland. The two leaders would meet again “with the view to making progress by the end of February.”

President @JunckerEU and Polish PM @MorawieckiM had a constructive discussion on #FutureofEurope, Poland position within the EU & EU policies on internal market, digital, energy and migration.

Also detailed discussion of questions related to #RuleOfLaw https://t.co/Vxz6l4k80h pic.twitter.com/EpeSWsLSRr

— European Commission (@EU_Commission) January 9, 2018

Ahead of Morawiecki’s departure for Brussels, it was announced that defence minister Antoni Macierewicz and foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski lost their jobs along with environment minister Jan Szyszko, among others, at an official ceremony held at the presidential palace in Warsaw.

Interior minister Mariusz Blaszczak took over the defence portfolio, while Jacek Czaputowicz, a deputy foreign minister with centrist views, will serve as foreign minister.

“We don’t want to be a dogmatic, doctrinaire or extremist government; we want to be a government that draws together the economy and society, as well as the European and global dimensions with the local level,” Morawiecki, who took office just last month, said as he greeted his new cabinet.

Warsaw-based political analyst Eryk Mystewicz described the reshuffle as “a new opening with the EU that gives a strong signal to Europe.”

“Morawiecki, Czaputowicz are not people who can be accused of wanting a Polexit,” Mystewicz said, adding that Czaputowicz as foreign minister “is a man from the centre who can give a new impetus to relations between Warsaw and Brussels.”

Szyszko had attracted widespread criticism domestically over moves to lift limits on hunting as well as for allowing massive logging in areas of Poland. The dismissed health minister has struggled to contain protests by medical staff in recent months.

The outgoing, hardline defence chief has been the PiS investigator into the 2010 plane crash over Russia that killed President Lech Kaczynski – the twin brother of current party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski – and dozens of other senior Polish officials.

Kaczynski and Macierewicz believe the crash may have been caused by foul play and not pilot error, which was the official cause returned by a investigation by the previous centrist government.

‘Basic consensus’

In a major escalation against one of the bloc’s biggest states, Brussels last month triggered article seven of the EU treaty over what it sees as “systemic threats” to the independence of the Polish judiciary from the nation’s right-wing government.

Never before used against an EU member state, the proceedings can eventually lead to the “nuclear option” of the suspension of a country’s voting rights within the bloc.

The EU gave Warsaw three months to remedy the situation, saying it could withdraw the measures if it did.

But just hours after the EU announcement, a defiant Polish president went ahead and signed the reforms into law and accused the bloc of “lying” about them.

Poland insists the reforms are aimed at banishing the last vestiges of communism from its justice system.

In excerpts of an interview aired Tuesday on German public television, Juncker said he does not want to threaten Warsaw with cutting financial aid.

“I am not in a belligerent mood, I want us to move together with the Poles towards a basic consensus,” he said.

‘Getting better’?

The row underlines growing east-west tensions within the EU, with former Soviet bloc states like Poland and Hungary refusing to toe the Brussels line on thorny issues including judicial and media independence as well as immigration.

The EU has also taken Poland to court over its refusal to accept refugees under an EU quota system.

In his first interview after being sworn in, foreign minister Czaputowicz told the right-leaning wPolityce weekly that “cooperation with the EU is a very important priority for Poland.”

“This is also proven by Prime Minister Morawiecki’s visit to Brussels today,” he said, adding that “certainly relations with Mr Tusk should be seen in this broader EU context. Nothing prevents these relationships from getting better.”

Up to now the the PiS government has had very rocky ties with EU President Donald Tusk, a former liberal Polish premier and PiS arch-rival.

Relations have been so tense that Poland was the only country to vote against his reelection as European Council president in March.

Warsaw-based political scientist Stanislaw Mocek told AFP that the new cabinet was “aimed at improving the tarnished image of Poland abroad, especially in its relations with the EU.”