UPDATE 1-Poland warns EU pressure over legal reforms could backfire

* Warsaw tries to mend ties with EU as budget talks start

* Commission has accused Warsaw of undermining EU values

* Duda offers apology on anniversary of anti-Jewish campaign (Adds Morawiecki, Duda, other detail)

BRUSSELS, March 8 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Thursday defended Poland's controversial court overhaul and brought a warning to Brussels that the European Union's heavy criticism of the reforms could backfire.

Morawiecki was meeting European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, in the latest high-level contact between Warsaw and Brussels aimed at resolving their row over concerns around democratic standards in the biggest ex-communist EU state.

Juncker gave Morawiecki a brief bearhug before the Pole presented him with Warsaw's "white paper" on the new laws. Morawiecki later told journalists he expected the Commission to analyze the text thoroughly, which could take weeks.

The reforms by his ruling nationalists have been criticized by civil society campaigners, international democracy watchdogs, the EU and opposition parties in Poland for subjecting the courts to more government control.

"These talks were very constructive and very promising," Morawiecki said after meeting Juncker.

"We will certainly continue them and I hope that, sooner or later, our views will converge even more, will converge enough to reach a full agreement on the judicial reform we proposed to our citizens."

The Polish document says the reforms are needed to improve efficiency and remove judges "entangled in dishonorable service" in Poland's pre-1989 communist regime.

But it also warns western, more liberal EU states not to push Warsaw too much at the risk of "strengthening anti-European sentiment" in Poland.

"It can lead to the growth of populist political forces, seeking to dismantle or weaken ... the European Union," the document says. A Commission spokesman later said the bloc had received it and dialog would continue.


Brussels last year took steps to penalize Warsaw and force it to change tack on 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 the most serious possible sanction against Warsaw - stripping it of its vote on EU affairs.

With Poland being at loggerheads with the EU over migration and environment policies as well, Morawiecki has won time by reopening dialog with the EU on the rule of law.

Poland's new willingness to talk comes as the EU is embarking on difficult negotiations over its next long-term budget. Some net payers want to cut the bloc's handouts to countries deemed to not be respecting its fundamental values.

Poland is currently the biggest beneficiary of EU money and risks losing billions of euros if the dispute is not settled.

The EU's handling of eurosceptic and populist governments, including in member states like Poland and Hungary, has emerged as a key challenge for the bloc after Brexit.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, speaking in Warsaw on Thursday at an event marking the 50th anniversary of a communist-era anti-Jewish campaign in Poland, offered an apology to thousands of Jews who fled the country then.

In asking for forgiveness, however, he said it was communist Poland that had been at fault, not the present Polish state.

Warsaw has in recent weeks upset the United States, Israel and Jewish communities with a law criminalizing suggestions Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. Critics denounce it as historic whitewashing. (Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly and Pawel Florkiewicz in Warsaw; editing by Andrew Roche)

03/08/2018 9:33

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