EU Wins Poland Logging Ban as Spat Over Rule of Law Evolves

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union won a court battle against Poland over logging in one of the continent’s last primeval forests, underscoring their strained relations as they seek to resolve a wider conflict over democratic values.

The European Court of Justice sided with the EU’s executive on Tuesday by ruling that Poland’s move to cut down in 2017 parts of the Bialowieza forest, home to the European bison as well as numerous bird species, breached environmental rules. Poland risks a fine of at least 4.3 million euros ($5.3 million) if it doesn’t reverse decisions on logging.

Several hours later, ministers from EU member states discussed the risk of democratic backsliding in Poland, keeping pressure on Warsaw to amend a controversial judicial system revamp. Facing the threat of unprecedented EU sanctions and a weaker negotiating position for funds from the bloc’s next multi-year budget, the government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has in past months sought rapprochement with Brussels, agreeing to stop mass logging near Bialowieza and offering to change parts of recent court overhauls criticized by the commission.

The EU hasn’t yet decided if Warsaw’s actions to address concerns about the judiciary, which critics called a “smokescreen,” will convince it to drop the threat of sanctions. Ministers from EU nations in the EU Council are set to discuss the rule of law in Poland again at a meeting on May 14 after Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said more progress is needed in talks between Brussels and Warsaw.

“We gave clear indications, and it was supported around the table, that it’s positive that now we’re making steps forward, but that we still need concrete results in the days and weeks to come,” Timmermans told reporters after the meeting in Luxembourg. “We will draw our conclusions once we know what is actually being put on the table and where we are. And I hope we can draw conclusions by the next time we meet in the Council. We don’t have an endless amount of time.”

‘Huge Victory’

In its binding ruling, the EU’s top court said Poland was wrong to argue it needed “active forest management operations” to stop the spread of the spruce bark beetle. Such explanations have triggered months of protests by environmental lobby groups.

“This is a huge victory for all defenders of Bialowieza Forest,” ClientEarth Chief Executive James Thornton said in a statement. “This is not the end of our fight.” He called on a full withdrawal from logging and enlarging the national park to encompass the entire forest.

On the rule of law front, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights think-tank said the government’s latest court revamps aren’t deep enough to meet demands set out by Brussels, tighten politicians’ grip on the justice system and fail to “repair the damage done to the judiciary in the past two years.”

Lawmakers passed bills forcing the government to publish several 2016 rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal, which the cabinet has refused to do, preventing them from becoming binding. The new legislation includes a disclaimer, however, that the verdicts won’t have legal consequences. Other tweaks will force the justice minister to consult judiciary bodies before dismissing court presidents while failing to reinstate about 130 senior judges sacked by the government in past months.

Despite this legislation, which still need to be signed by President Andrzej Duda, Poland’s ruling party probably has to do more to reach a compromise with Brussels and avoid the threat of sanctions, according Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.

“While Warsaw may agree to additional but limited changes, Law & Justice won’t agree to a more substantive reversal of its judicial reform which it sees as critical to its ideology,” Eurasia’s Mujtaba Rahman and Naz Masraff said in a note. “And if there is no progress, the threat of advancing” with the sanctions process or “reducing the amount of structural funds Warsaw receives, will remain.”

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