Brussels to unlock Poland’s €137 billion of frozen EU funds, announces von der Leyen in Warsaw

The European Commission is set to unblock up to €137 billion (600 billion zloty) in EU funds it froze over rule-of-law concerns under the previous government, announced Ursula von der Leyen, the commission’s president, during a visit to meet Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Warsaw today.

She praised the steps taken so far by Tusk’s government, which took office in December, to improve the independence of the judiciary following eight years of rule by the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.

We are impressed by Poland’s efforts to restore the Rule of Law as the backbone of its society.

These efforts are decisive.

Next week the @EU_Commission will table decisions on EU funds freeing up to €137 billion for Poland ↓

— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) February 23, 2024

The money in question – almost €60 billion from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund and €76 billion in cohesion funds – had been frozen due to the PiS government’s judicial reforms, which brought courts under greater political control.

The new, more liberal and pro-EU ruling coalition has moved to implement the changes required by the European Commission, including by presenting an action plan in Brussels this week that included removing political influence over the body responsible for nominating judges.

“We are impressed by your efforts and those of the Polish people to restore the rule of law as the backbone of your society,” said von der Leyen during a joint press conference with Tusk.

“Based on the reforms you have launched and the number of immediate steps you have taken on judicial independence I have good news. Next week, the College [of EU Commissioners] will come forward with two decisions on two funds that are currently blocked for Poland,” she added, explaining that Poland will regain access both to recovery funds and cohesion funds.

The Polish government has approved changes to KRS, the body responsible for nominating judges, placed under greater political control by PiS.

„This solution will make KRS independent of the legislative branch,” the justice ministry said

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) February 21, 2024

This week, Poland’s justice minister Adam Bodnar presented a package of 10 bills in Brussels to restore the rule of law in Poland, affecting key institutions such as the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Tribunal.

One of these bills, amending the law on the National Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the body responsible for nominating judges, which was placed under greater political control by the previous ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, has been approved by the Polish government this week.

“I strongly welcome the action plan that your government presented to the member states this week…it is a clear roadmap for Poland and your efforts are decisive,” stated von der Leyen.

Mamy praworządność. Mamy 600 miliardów. Przed nami kolejny wielki cywilizacyjny skok!

— Donald Tusk (@donaldtusk) February 23, 2024

Under its post-pandemic National Recovery Plan, Poland is to receive €59.8 billion, including €25.3 billion in grants and €34.5 billion in preferential loans. The first tranche is to amount to €6.3 billion.

Broadcaster RMF FM had earlier reported unofficially that the final decision would be issued on Thursday. Poland may receive the funds by April.

According to EU regulations, each country can only apply for a payment twice a year. Poland is aiming to submit two applications for payments this year. Under the EU procedure, the Council of the European Union, consisting of the heads of government of member states, will then have one month to approve Poland’s request for the payment.

KE odblokuje 6,3 mld z KPO. Formalna decyzja 29.2. To otworzy PL dostęp do całej puli z KPO (60mld euro), oczywiście konieczne reformy i inwestycje. Tego samego dnia, albo b szybko KE odblokuje pieniądze dla pol regionów (76 mld euro). W sumie to 136 mld !

— Szymańska-Borginon (@Sz_Borginon) February 23, 2024

In Warsaw today, Von der Leyen also referred to recent farmer protests, saying that the first payment will include €1.4 billion available immediately for Polish farmers “to help them improve and modernise and reach new markets”.

The Recovery and Resilience Facility (RFF) was created as the EU’s response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on European economies. The funds have already been used by other countries for several years. Poland has already implemented projects as part of the reconstruction plan, but had to use its own funds for this.

To date, Poland has received €5 billion from the RePowerEu programme, part of the RFF that was added last year and is separate from the previously frozen funds. The money was approved by the EU in early December.

In line with EU targets, a significant proportion of the funds should be allocated to climate (42.7%) and digital transformation (21.3%) policies.

The EU has approved over €5bn for Poland from its post-pandemic recovery facility.

Brussels has so far withheld Poland’s funds over rule-of-law concerns, but the new tranche of money comes from a separate part of the package relating to energy transition

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 8, 2023

Prime Minister Tusk welcomed the promise to unblock the funds. “By re-electing democracy and the rule of law, [Poles] are the true heroes of this story, which has found its finale today,” he said. “It is a really a lot of money that we will put to good use and that we will also use to defuse all that is causing such tension and anxiety today.”

However, figures linked to PiS, now the main opposition party, criticised von der Leyen’s announcement, pointing out that no actual legal changes have yet been made by the new government. “From the perspective of the current law, NOTHING has changed,” wrote Sebastian Kaleta, who served as deputy justice minister in the PiS government.

“This proves that we “were right to argue that the whole mechanism is built on political blackmail”, added Kaleta. PiS always claimed that Poland’s funds were not bring frozen due to genuine rule-of-law concerns but to force the Polish government to bend to Brussels’ will or to bring about a change in government.

Kaleta argued that it is in fact under Tusk’s government that Poland now “has a problem with the rule of law”. PiS has repeatedly claimed that the new government is violating the law and the constitution on issues such as the takeover of public media and the removal of the PiS-appointed national prosecutor.

KPO ma zostać odblokowane. Z perspektywy obowiązującego prawa NIC się nie zmieniło.

A to oznacza, że @Suwerenna_POL miała rację przekonując, że cały ten mechanizm zbudowany jest na politycznym szantażu i żadne kompromisy, ale weta mogą uratować Polskę.

Stało się inaczej,…

— Sebastian Kaleta (@sjkaleta) February 23, 2024

Notes from Poland is run by a small editorial team and published by an independent, non-profit foundation that is funded through donations from our readers. We cannot do what we do without your support.

Main image credit: Kancelaria Premiera/ Flickr

Alicja Ptak is senior editor at Notes from Poland and a multimedia journalist. She previously worked for Reuters.

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