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EU to release billions of euros to Poland that were frozen over previous government policies

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The European Commission announced on Thursday that it will begin releasing billions of euros to Poland that were frozen over the previous government’s policies that the bloc said amounted to widespread backsliding on fundamental democratic principles, according to AP News. 

The move had been expected after Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised “good news” last week to reward Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk for his efforts to overturn a series of measures imposed by the previous conservative government that went against EU judicial cornerstones. 

Thursday’s move cemented a sea change in relations. Both sides had openly clashed after the stridently nationalist Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 and implemented reforms that critics said placed Poland’s judiciary under political control.

The EU threatened to suspend Poland’s EU voting rights and also blocked its access to tens of billions of euros in EU funds over concerns about the rule of law.

Tusk’s work to turn back the judicial changes since he became prime minister in December has been warmly embraced across almost all of the EU.

The Polish government has shown that it will comply with EU standards even though not all proposed measures have been implemented, according to EU officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, according to Bloomberg.

Under complicated EU bookkeeping rules, Poland could receive the first 600 million euros in real cash from a 75 billion euro aid pot that had been blocked over the next weeks. More funds will be transferred once Poland sends in outstanding paperwork from projects.

A 6.3 billion euro disbursement from a 60 billion euro program to boost the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic downturn should also be released soon.

Tusk’s election victory last October was essential in achieving the change. The Commission has now acknowledged that sufficient efforts to resolve the issues have been made for it to start releasing the funds. If there is no full follow-through by Poland, restrictive measures could be reimposed.

The breakthrough in the standoff came after Polish Justice Minister Adam Bodnar presented an “action plan” to European officials which outlined draft legislation. EU officials also stressed that some of the proposals in the Polish plan can’t become law without the approval of President Andrzej Duda, who is a staunch ally of the Law and Justice party. His term runs until 2025.

Yet, despite such domestic political challenges, the EU decided there was enough positive legal thrust to start releasing the funds.

The money will be coming from the EU’s Next Generation fund meant to help the bloc’s members recover from the COVID-19 pandemic downturn and also from a cohesion fund that supports infrastructure development.

Shortly after Tusk’s pro-EU Cabinet took office in December, Brussels released some 5 billion euros for Poland for clean energy projects. Poland is to hold local elections in April which could further strengthen the current government’s standing across the country.

Poland’s pro-European coalition of three center-left parties led by Tusk won parliamentary elections on Oct. 15 and took over in December, succeeding the Law and Justice party that had ruled for eight years and introduced changes to the justice system, reproductive rights and the media that put Poland increasingly on a collision course with the EU.