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Crisis in relations between Poland and Czech Republic after ECJ decision on Turów mine

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Poland/Czechia – Rather than fostering an agreement between Poland and the Czech Republic, the decision by the ECJ’s Spanish vice-president to impose a daily penalty payment of €500,000 on Warsaw until it closes its lignite mine in Turów, near the Czech border, seems to have had the opposite effect. At least for the time being, as Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has cancelled his attendance at the Budapest Demographic Summit on 23 and 24 September due to the presence there of his Czech counterpart Andrej Babiš. Morawiecki’s refusal to meet Babiš was the reason first given by the pro-PiS website and later repeated by the Polish and Czech media on Thursday morning. As early as Wednesday, Polish media had reported that the Polish government intended to suspend its participation in the meetings of the Visegrád Group (V4), which includes Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, until the dispute over the Turów mine is resolved and the Czech Republic withdraws its complaint to the ECJ.

On 25 May, Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki claimed somewhat hastily that he had reached an agreement during discussions in Brussels with his Czech counterpart. The latter quickly denied this, and the discussions have dragged on since then. The conflict is about the problems of pollution and the lowering of the water table, which inhabitants on the Czech side of the border allege are caused by the Turów open-pit mine. Just before the ECJ’s imposition of financial penalties on Poland, local mayors on both sides of the border had called on the two governments to reach an agreement as soon as possible, to avoid the dispute ending up damaging good neighbourly relations.

For more information on this subject, see:
Turów mine – Czech Republic calls for sanctions against Poland

An activist judge at the ECJ?

On 21 May, the ECJ decided, in a single-judge hearing with Spanish judge Rosario Silva de Lapuerta presiding, to order Poland, as a protective measure (without having yet ruled on the merits of the case), to suspend the operation of its Turów lignite mine. Warsaw has refused to comply, arguing that the lignite from the mine feeds a nearby power plant which provides between 5% and 7% of the country’s electricity production. Suspending its operation, Poland says, would undermine its energy security and cause power cuts in the region, not to mention the thousands of jobs that would be lost, all under a so-called “protective” measure decided single-handedly on a provisional basis, as a temporary order, by a judge already known for her rulings against the Polish government. In the past, some of Silva de Lapuerta’s interim orders were delivered just before elections, as if they were meant to influence their outcome.

For example, in October 2018, two days before the Polish regional and municipal elections, Silva de Lapuerta, who has been a judge at the ECJ since 2003, single-handedly delivered an interim order asking Poland to suspend its reform of the retirement age of judges of the Polish Supreme Court.

Morawiecki government refusing to comply

After Monday’s imposition of a daily fine of €500,000 (the Czechs were asking for a penalty payment of €5 million per day), some members of the Polish government reacted by saying that Poland still had no intention of closing the Turów lignite mine and would not pay a single cent of the penalty payment ordered by the vice-president of the ECJ. But Prime Minister Morawiecki was not so adamant about Poland’s refusal to pay the fine, saying that the question of payment remained to be decided, but that in the meantime his government would use all legal remedies at its disposal. “Disconnecting the Turów mine would deprive millions of families of electricity, something we cannot accept”, the Polish PM reacted the day after the decision was taken in Luxembourg, insisting that the power cuts would also affect a significant number of schools and hospitals. “We wanted to find an agreement with the Czech Republic, but the Czechs have shown a total lack of goodwill”, he added, noting that the latest ECJ ruling is seen in Warsaw as “extremely aggressive, extremely damaging to Polish–Czech relations”.

Polexit discussion revived

Incidentally, the penalty payment imposed by the ECJ and its demand that a lignite mine of such importance for the country’s energy supply be closed down provisionally, pending a judgment on the merits, revives the debate on the balance of costs and benefits of EU membership and the idea of Polexit, because the ruling is clearly disproportionate and out of touch with reality. In a context of significant increases in electricity prices, linked mainly to the soaring price of CO2 emission rights that coal-fired power plants have to pay (due to Poland’s membership of the EU), and also in the context of the “green deal” hoped for by the EU, which is likely to see Poland face significant costs, the chairman of the Turów inter-factory committee of the Solidarity trade union believes that the ECJ’s interim order for the “provisional” closure of the Turów mine pending a ruling on the merits “challenges the sense of Poland’s presence in the European Union”. Indeed, he points out, “if a decision taken by Judge Rosario Silva de Lapuerta alone can lead to the bankruptcy of one of the largest energy companies in Poland, exposing the whole country to a loss of its energy sovereignty and therefore of its economic sovereignty, the three pillars of the European community on which the European Union is based are a fiction! And in this case they are even a farce.”

In its statement published on the website of Solidarity’s press outlet, the legendary trade union that toppled communism in Poland demands that the Polish government refuse to pay the financial penalties imposed by the Spanish judge, and even suspend its payments to the EU budget if the Commission were to deduct these penalties from EU funds paid to Poland.

Divisions between Poles

According to the website Wirtualna Polska, within the Polish government, members of Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro’s Solidarna Polska (United Poland) party are of the opinion that it would be better to avoid a deterioration in relations with Prague and to focus attacks on the European Union, but the Prime Minister concluded the day after the ECJ decision that the matter could not remain without consequences for relations between Warsaw and Prague. This is especially true since the Morawiecki government now feels that the Czechs have not negotiated in good faith since the ECJ vice-president’s first interim order in May, when an agreement on environmental protection infrastructure and financial compensation seemed within reach as early as spring.

For their part, the Polish opposition and the media hostile to the Morawiecki government believe that Poland has turned a deaf ear for too long to the real problems raised by the Czechs, and that the Morawiecki government has been incompetent and has lacked seriousness in its dealings with the Babiš government and in presenting its case to the ECJ.