BRUSSELS — Poland’s prime minister repeatedly came under criticism during a tense debate in the European Parliament on Tuesday, with the EU’s chief executive warning Warsaw that its challenge to the supremacy of the 27-nation bloc’s law would not go unpunished.
"You're arguments are not getting better. You're just escaping the debate," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, visibly exasperated with Poland's Mateusz Morawiecki after more than four hours of back-and-forth.
Von der Leyen said a ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal last week that parts of European Union law are incompatible with the Polish constitution was "a direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order."
She laid out three options for a response to the Polish court’s attack on the primacy of EU law, ranging from legal action to a cut in funding and suspension of voting rights.
Brussels has long complained that the Polish government is undermining the independence of its judiciary, but the court ruling has turned a stand-off into a full-blown crisis, raising fears that Poland could eventually leave the bloc.
Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice party says it has no plans for a "Polexit" and — unlike Britain before its Brexit referendum in 2016 — popular support for membership of the EU remains high in Poland.
In an open letter sent before his appearance at the EU assembly in Strasbourg, France, Morawiecki complained of EU mission creep that would lead to a "centrally managed organism, governed by institutions deprived of democratic control."
He doubled down on that in the parliament debate on Tuesday, accusing the bloc of overstepping its authority.
"EU competencies have clear boundaries, we must not remain silent when those boundaries are breached," he said. "So we are saying yes to European universalism, but we say no to European centralism."
Von der Leyen said she was "deeply concerned" by the Polish court ruling, as it "calls into question the foundations" of the EU and the European Commission was compelled to act.
She said the first option for action was a so-called infringement, where the European Commission legally challenges the Polish court’s judgment, which could lead to fines.
Another option was a conditionality mechanism and other financial tools whereby EU funds would be withheld from Poland.
Until Warsaw’s clash with Brussels is resolved, it is unlikely to see any of the 23.9 billion euros in grants and 12.1 billion in cheap loans that it applied for as part of the EU’s recovery fund after the Covid-19 pandemic.
The EU could even eventually block Polish access to EU grants for development and structural projects in the 2021-2027 budget worth around 70 billion euros.
Von der Leyen said a third option was the application of Article 7 of the EU’s treaties. Under this, rights of member states — including the right to vote on EU decisions — can be suspended because they have breached core values of the bloc.
A succession of members of the EU parliament stood up to castigate the Polish leader after he spoke, and some EU ministers meeting in Luxembourg joined the chorus of criticism.
Finland’s minister for European affairs said a compromise could not be the solution and the European Commission must act.
"We do not want to escort anyone out," Tytti Tuppurainen told reporters. "We respect the wish of the Polish people to be inside the EU and continue as members of the EU, but we will not compromise the value base of the EU."