Brussels Briefing: Poland’s day of reckoning

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“I regarded your letter as an attempt to exert pressure upon the democratically elected parliament and government of the sovereign Republic of Poland.” Not a phrase you’d normally expect in official governmental communications between two ministerial-level politicians in the EU. But it was part of an invective-filled response to Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice-president, from Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro sent Monday night ahead of today’s highly-anticipated European Commission debate on two new laws that many critics believe undermine rule of law in Warsaw.

Despite the tendentious tone of the letter in response to questions on legal changes that will make it difficult for the country’s constitutional court to overturn legislation – and a similarly direct letter from senior diplomat Aleksander Stepkowski in response to concerns about a new Polish media law – officials tell us that Brussels is likely to keep its powder dry at today’s meeting, at least for now.

Under new powers granted in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president, could order a formal review of both the media law and the court changes to determine whether they present a “systemic threat” to rule of law. Officials say Mr Juncker is unlikely to act on the new judicial measures, which now require a two-thirds majority for the court to rule a law unconstitutional, until the Council of Europe’s Venice commission passes judgement on it, which isn’t likely until March.

The media law is a more close-run thing, but officials say neither Mr Juncker nor Mr Timmermans, who is responsible for rule-of-law issues at the commission, are pushing for a quick trigger on the review, hoping to use backchannels to persuade Warsaw to change tack before pulling out the bigger guns.

Still, the flap is already having reverberations across Europe – including the Eurovision Song Contest. In an interview, the head of the European Broadcast Union – the association of state-owned broadcasters that runs annual extravaganza of camp – warned that Poland could be kicked out of the EBU if the national broadcaster is deemed no longer to be independent. No EBU membership, no Eurovision entry.

What we’re reading

For those who had been hoping Turkey will be able to crack down on the flow of refugees coming from the Middle East into Europe, yesterday’s terrorist attack in the heart of Istanbul’s tourist centre is a reminder of just how difficult Ankara is finding controlling its own borders. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, blamed the attack that killed at least 10 on a Syrian suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS; most of the dead were Germans, potentially exacerbating an already combustible debate over migration in Berlin. In its reporting on the attack, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung notes that Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft recently began participating in coalition attacks in Syria from Turkish airfields – but emphasised no direct connection to the sorties had been claimed.

To get a sense of just how chaotic Turkey’s border regions with Syria have become, it’s worth reading our Mehul Srivastava’s Monday dispatch from Diyarbakir, one of the largest cities in south-eastern Turkey which has become the scene of running gun battles between the Turkish military and Kurdish militants. Sueddeutsche Zietung reports that Thomas de Maiziére, the German interior minister, will visit Istanbul today. Turkish daily Hurriyet reports that Turkish intelligence warned German, Dutch and French authorities as recently as last week that ISIS was plotting attacks on tourist areas in the country.

In yet another sign of how poisonous the migrant debate has become in northern Europe, the Danish government secured backing for a controversial bill which would allow authorities to seize jewellery and other valuables from asylum seekers to help pay for their stay in refugee centres. Denmark’s national broadcaster DR reports that the government only won over sceptical MPs by amending the law to allow refugees to hold onto wedding rings and other items of sentimental value, like family portraits. The UN’s high commission for refugees has called the legislation “an affront to their dignity and an arbitrary interference with their right to privacy.”

Early this morning, the Belgian federal prosecutor released a fuller account of raids they conducted last month in their investigation into the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, disclosing they found fingerprints of ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud in a flat in Charleroi. No weapons or explosives were there, however.

Ahead of Thursday’s eurogroup meeting, where an update on the first review of Greece’s €86bn bailout is on the agenda, Athens is hardening its stance against any further cuts in pensions. As part of the third bailout agreement, Greece agreed to cut about €1.8bn from the pension system annually, and legislation passed last year only gets them part of the way there. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, labour minister George Katrougalos insists the Syriza-led government will do no more cutting – something that is likely to be anathema to Berlin and the International Monetary Fund.

In her second major action of the week, Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission’s antitrust chief, last night announced she’s launching an in-depth investigation into Halliburton’s $26bn acquisition of rival oil services group Baker Hughes. The deal, which would reduce the number of major energy service companies from three to two, has already run into headwinds with US competition authorities, which forced the companies to push off closing until April because they could not reach a Justice Department agreement on what parts of the combined companies need to be divested.

The slow-moving melodrama of Mariano Rajoy and his efforts to form a coalition government continued on Tuesday with the acting prime minister saying he is now more willing to compromise with the centre-left Socialists, and even offered to form a three-way coalition with the free-market populist Ciudadanos party. Podemos, the far-left party that has sputtered since bursting onto the political scene during the 2014 European Parliament elections, appears to think a triple alliance has legs: Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias tweeted, “The three in the bunker begin to ride.”

Volkswagen’s troubles seem to never end in the US, even as the EU continues to struggle with how it should react to revelations the automaker built “defeat devices” into its cars to cheat emissions tests. California regulators rejected the company’s recall plans last night, saying they “contain gaps and lack sufficient detail”.

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