Macron Seeks Poland Reset as Warsaw Tightens Grip on Courts

(Bloomberg) -- Emmanuel Macron struck a conciliatory tone in a bid to rekindle France’s relationship with Poland.

In the first visit to Warsaw by a French head of state in six years, he’s seeking to mend relations strained by his criticism of Poland’s controversial overhaul of the judiciary and its rejection of a deal with Airbus in 2016.

Macron Seeks Poland Reset as Warsaw Tightens Grip on Courts

After meeting his counterpart Andrzej Duda on Monday, Macron said he wants to move on from “misunderstandings” in the past, though stressed concerns remain about the rule of law.

“I mentioned with president Duda, in all frankness since we are partners in Europe, the worries that arise from the ongoing justice reforms,” he said. “I hope that dialogue with the European Commission will intensify in the coming weeks because I know the values of freedom and justice are anchored in Poland.”

Macron’s attempt to patch over strains with the European Union’s biggest ex-communist member is central to his plans to strengthen the bloc after the U.K.’s departure and as Germany’s role as the main engine of EU integration fades.

He’s committed to visit every EU leader to beef up engagement with the union, including political “frenemies” like Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Not ‘Pro-Russian’

But Macron has also extended an olive branch to the Kremlin while making strongly worded comments on the limits of NATO, which Poland sees as its main defense from potential aggression from its Cold-War master Russia.

France hasn’t become “pro-Russian,” Macron said Monday.

While Poland and France agree on areas including the need for a digital tax, a European car-battery industry and fighting tax fraud, there are also major differences.

Poland’s reluctance toward the bloc’s climate-change and migration policies weigh on the relationship. Macron has said Poland shouldn’t access EU climate-transition funds until it explicitly backs the bloc’s emissions-cutting goals. Telling pro-environment activists to go demonstrate in Poland rather than France also didn’t go down well.

Constitutional Crisis

Defense is another sticking point. Poland’s confirmation it will purchase 32 F-15 aircraft from U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin is another blow to Macron’s push for European defense cooperation underpinned by EU-made equipment. Poland enraged the French in 2016 by handing a $3.5 billion helicopter deal to Lockheed despite having an outline agreement with Airbus.

The most difficult topic for Macron may be Poland’s deep constitutional crisis, as top courts remain locked in a clash over the validity of the government’s sweeping overhaul of the judiciary.

The EU is increasingly fed up with Warsaw for its drive to politicize the courts and is considering tying EU funds to members’ adherence to democratic standards. That may potentially deal a painful blow to the biggest net recipient of financial aid from the bloc.

Nevertheless, the tone on Monday was softer.

“I strongly believe this visit will be a breakthrough,” Polish President Duda said. “It’s a historic moment, we just had Brexit, France is now an even stronger European superpower, and President Macron’s visit here is a strong signal of French interest in the region.”

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