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EU refuses to give Poland money after changes limiting the judiciary's independence


The right-wing party that governs Poland has chipped away at the country's judicial independence for years. Now the European Union is withholding the equivalent of around 15% of Poland's GDP over it. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Warsaw.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: When the people of Poland overthrew communism and started their democracy in 1989, they wanted a judicial branch independent from political influence, so they placed the power of selecting judges in the hands of other judges. But five years ago, Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party introduced a new law to do away with this system. It decreed politicians from the ruling party would instead select Poland's judges.

PIOTR GACIAREK: (Through interpreter) And from then on, the Law and Justice Party has chosen judges who are loyal to their party.

SCHMITZ: Judge Piotr Gaciarek calls these new politically appointed judges neo-judges. They now make up more than a fifth of Poland's judiciary. And he says the way they were appointed violates Poland's constitution. Gaciarek is one of dozens of Polish judges who refuse to adjudicate with neo-judges.

GACIAREK: (Through interpreter) Last year, I was selected to preside over a criminal case with one of these neo-judges, but I didn't consider that person a legal judge. On the day of the trial, I didn't show up.

SCHMITZ: And for that, Gaciarek was suspended - 40% of his salary gone.

GACIAREK: (Through interpreter) I've been a judge for 20 years. I presided over mob trials and homicides. There aren't many judges in Poland who have the skills to do that. I feel like the state is wasting my potential.

SCHMITZ: And in the minds of many Poles, the state is also wasting potential money over this. The EU has refused to give Poland COVID stimulus funds worth around $35 billion and is now threatening to withhold $75 billion more in cohesion funds unless Poland's government reverses the changes it's made to the judiciary. The total potential hit is worth a fifth of Poland's GDP.

JACEK KUCHARCZYK: It's huge. It means more than losing the Marshall Fund meant for communist Poland in 1950s.

SCHMITZ: Jacek Kucharczyk is president of the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank in Warsaw. He says Poland's government is behaving like former Soviet leader Josef Stalin when he refused Marshall Plan funds to rebuild a devastated Poland after World War II. Kucharczyk says the ruling Law and Justice Party's leaders understand that reversing course would be a blow to their political power and are willing to hold Poland's future prosperity hostage in order to maintain that control.

KACPER PLAZYNSKI: From our perspective, it's not a discussion of matters of law.

SCHMITZ: The chairman of Poland's EU Affairs Committee, Kacper Plazynski, insists most of the EU funds owed to Poland will be paid but that some of the funding is being withheld not because of his party's changes to the judiciary but because Poland's being bullied by the EU's more liberal states.

PLAZYNSKI: It's more like discussion of political brutality in European Union and that just Polish current government is more conservative than most of the others in the European Union.

SCHMITZ: Plazynski insists judges in Poland are just as independent as judges in nearby Germany. The EU disagrees. And that's worrying many Poles, like Jadwiga Gajda-Lusina, who lives outside Krakow.

JADWIGA GAJDA-LUSINA: (Through interpreter) These EU funds have fueled so much development here. I work on cultural projects, and if these funds are cut, we would have to cancel educational workshops for children that teach them about environmental protection.

SCHMITZ: A recent survey shows nearly two-thirds of Poles blame the current government for the EU's cuts in funding. Political analyst Kucharczyk says all of this could impact next year's election, when Law and Justice will be asking voters for four more years in power.

KUCHARCZYK: In the previous elections, there was also a lot of criticism, and a lot of people wanted them gone. But the economic situation was way better. They seemed in control, and they had the sort of narrative which proved very effective.

SCHMITZ: Now, he says, Poland suffers some of the worst inflation in Europe, tens of billions of dollars' worth of funding is being withheld from the EU and the Law and Justice Party doesn't look as strong.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Warsaw. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.