What’s cooking in Brussels

By Claire Stam

Hot pots are an indispensable part of Brussels cuisine. The hot pot offered by the European Commission is particularly spicy at the moment.

Parliamentary wrangling over the Fit for 55 packages is taking a (temporarily tiny) break, and EU diplomats are already in marching order to prepare for the next EU summit on June 23-24 and the next G7 summit at Schloss Elmau on June 27-28. What is the Brussels executive doing in the meantime? It is introducing so-called “milestones.”

These “milestones” are stages for Poland set by the European Commission. They are intended to enable the country to gradually receive the funds provided for in the Post-Covid Recovery Plan. In other words, there will be no automatic release of the funds, but each payment tranche must be preceded by a specific assessment under these “Milestones”.

The big problem is that this initiative is seen by many in Brussels as a significant relaxation of the Commission’s rule-of-law requirements for Warsaw – at a time when Brussels is compromising with Hungary to win Viktor Orbán’s support for a sixth sanctions package. Even though Ursula von der Leyen stressed at a press conference in Warsaw, “We are not yet at the end of the road as far as the rule of law in Poland is concerned.”

Proposal received frosty reception from parliament

Wojciech Sadurski, Challis Professor of Law at the University of Sydney and Professor at the Europe Centre at the University of Warsaw, points out in his blog on the subject that the Commission’s decision still needs to be approved by the Council. Most importantly, the legal expert says, the Commission has shot itself in the foot.

“The Commission has voluntarily and without apparent reason renounced the great leverage it has over a Member State guilty of systematic violations of the rule of law,” he writes. “The rashness of the decision (…) is inexcusable. The facts on the ground are known to all: independent judges and prosecutors are harassed and suspended, the Constitutional Court issues one anti-European verdict after another, and the illegal KRS continues to recommend new judges to the president, who then blithely appoints them. This is no way for a member state to assure its EU partners that it will use stimulus funds responsibly.”

Indeed, the Commission’s proposal received a more than frosty reception from a large majority of EU parliamentarians – but also within the Commission itself. In a rare gesture, two members of the College of Commissioners – Margrethe Vestager and Frans Timmermans – voted against the proposal, while three others sent letters expressing their concerns.

On the Council side, rule of law advocates such as the Netherlands and the Nordic countries could reject Poland’s recovery and reconstruction plan, while others could abstain. This would be a first, as national recovery and resilience plans have so far been adopted unanimously.

Poland’s blockade on global minimum tax

In the Brussels Bubble, people are looking for explanations to make sense of the Commission’s attitude. In the Berlaymont and Wiertz Street corridors, reference is made to Poland’s positive role in dealing with Putin’s war and the urgent need for funding for Warsaw, made necessary by the arrival of over three million Ukrainian refugees. But also – and not least – out of a desire to further disrupt relations between Poland (anti-Putin) and Hungary (pro-Putin) and thus isolate Budapest. It is an understatement to say that tempers in Brussels were heated by Viktor Orbán’s repeated blocking of the new sanctions package.

There are other factors at play as well. From the Bubble, Poland’s stance in the negotiations on the EU tax on multinationals is mostly perceived as blackmail. At this point, it is useful to recall that France, whose presidency ends at the end of the month, has made this European tax on multinationals one of its priorities during its presidency. And with France insoumise seriously sweating in the Macronist camp, Paris needs a strong social message to seduce voters with left-leaning hearts as the first round of parliamentary elections takes place next Sunday.

A national appointment, you will say. But the steady rise of La France Insoumise – whose European agenda is causing more than a frown in Brussels – is making the strategists of La République en Marche sweat. While the parliamentary elections should be a cakewalk for Emmanuel Macron’s party, some of the new government’s most important figures are under political scrutiny. First and foremost, Emmanuel Macron’s Mr. Europe, Clément Beaune.

For at this point, it is necessary to recall a principle of French political life – a curious one, to be sure, but one that is consistently applied: A minister can remain in government only if he or she succeeds in winning or retaining his or her deputy mandate at the same time.


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