Poland warns EU pressure over democracy could backfire

BRUSSELS, March 8 (Reuters) - Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Thursday defended to the European Union's executive court reforms made by his ruling nationalists and warned that too much criticism from the bloc could backfire.

Morawiecki is meeting European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, the latest high-level contact between Warsaw and Brussels in recent months aimed at resolving a dispute over EU concerns about democracy in Poland.

Juncker offered a brief bear hug on receiving Morawiecki, who is presenting Warsaw's 'white paper' on the judicial overhaul.

The overhaul has been criticized by civil society campaigners, international democracy watchdogs, the EU and opposition parties in Poland for making the courts submit to more government control.

The document says the reforms were needed to improve efficiency and remove judges "entangled in dishonorable service" in Poland's communist government, which fell in 1989.

But it also warns western, more liberal EU states not to push Warsaw too much on the issue because of "strengthening anti-European sentiment that has been more ... apparent for the last years."

"It can lead to the growth of populist political forces, seeking to dismantle or weaken ... the European Union," said the document, circulated by the Polish government. An EU spokeswoman later said the bloc had received it and dialog would continue.

Brussels last year launched a scheme to penalize Warsaw and force it to change tack on its media and court reforms imposed since the Law and Justice (PiS) party took power in 2015.

Hungary, a eurosceptic Polish ally, has vowed to block what could be the top sanction under the so-called Article 7 procedure - stripping Poland of its vote on EU affairs.

But even the fact the threat is on the table and being debated by the other 27 EU states is an embarrassment for Warsaw, which views itself as a leader of ex-communist EU countries.

The Polish document says triggering Article 7 was not justified and for now, Morawiecki has won time with the bloc by reopening dialog with the EU on the matter. Poland is also at odds with the bloc EU over migration and environment policies.

Poland's new willingnes to talk came as the EU is embarking on difficult negotiations over its next, long-term budget and some net payers want to cut the bloc's generous handouts to countries not respecting the bloc's fundamental values.

Poland is currently the main beneficiary of EU money and risks losing billions of euros in the dispute over the rule of law.

The EU's management of eurosceptic and populist governments, including in member states like Poland and Hungary, has emerged as a key challenge for the bloc after Brexit. (Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

03/08/2018 6:30

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