EU welcomes Poland back into the fold by unfreezing billions in funds

FEB 29, 2024 LISTEN

The European Union took a major step towards mending ties with member state Poland on Thursday by announcing it would begin releasing billions of euros in funding. The aid had been frozen over policies the bloc said amounted to backsliding on fundamental democratic principles.

The move is victory for Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who has worked hard to overturn measures imposed by the previous conservative government since he became premier in December.

Beyond its political significance, the move opens the way for up to €135 billion in EU aid to go to Poland over the coming few years.

The decision cements a sea change in relations. Both sides had openly clashed after the stridently nationalist Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 and implemented reforms that critics said placed Poland's judiciary under political control.

The EU threatened to suspend Poland's EU voting rights and also blocked its access to EU funds.

"Today is a landmark day for Poland," said EU Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis.

Thanks to the country's efforts to restore the rule of law, he said, "we are now able to unlock access" to a slew of funds designed to help EU nations recover from the Covid-19 crisis and assist their economies to rise to the standards of wealthier member nations.

Under complicated EU financial rules, Poland could receive over the next weeks the first €600 million in cash from a €75 billion aid pot that had been blocked.

More funds will be transferred once Poland sends in outstanding paperwork from projects. A €6.3 billion disbursement from a €60 billion programme to boost recovery from the Covid downturn should also be released soon.

'Important strides'

Tusk's election victory last October was essential in achieving the change. The Commission has now acknowledged that sufficient efforts to resolve the issues have been made for it to start releasing the funds.

But if Poland doesn't follow through, restrictive measures could be reimposed.

EU Vice President Vera Jourova showed confidence in Tusk's leadership, saying: "Today we turn a page on the rule of law issues with Poland as we recognise the important strides made by the government."

A pro-European coalition of three centre-left parties, led by Tusk, won Poland's parliamentary elections on 15 October and took over in December.

It succeeded the Law and Justice party that had ruled for eight years and introduced changes to the justice system, reproductive rights and the media that put Poland increasingly on a collision course with the EU.

The breakthrough in the standoff came after the new government presented an action plan to European officials which outlined draft legislation.

But EU officials stressed that some of the proposals in the Polish plan can't become law without the approval of President Andrzej Duda, who is a staunch ally of the Law and Justice party. His term runs until 2025.

(with newswires)