Court decision to fine Poland is reverberating throughout Central and Eastern Europe, where far-right leaders are converging ahead of their respective election campaigns.

The Court of Justice of the European Union, CJEU, on Wednesday issued a million-euros daily fine to Poland, the largest in the block’s history, for not dismantling a disciplinary system for judges that the ruling Law and Justice Party, PiS, has created.

Earlier this summer, the CJEU issued two rulings on the Polish judiciary, one of which called on Warsaw to suspend the activities of the Disciplinary Chamber at the Supreme Court, a body created as part of PiS justice changes implemented since 2015.

Critics claimed the new disciplinary system would be used to punish judges who are critical of PiS reforms. The European court had said the disciplinary system, as well as other changes in the justice system, were incompatible with the principle of judicial independence, a core tenet of EU law.

“Fines and blackmail against our country are not the way forward,” Piotr Muller, a spokesman for the Polish government, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday in response to the news. “This is not the model on the basis of which the EU – a union of sovereign states – should function.”

The fine is the latest development in an ongoing conflict between Warsaw and Brussels over rule of law, which reached a critical moment earlier this month, when the politically controlled Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that some articles in EU Treaties were not compatible with the Polish Constitution.

Legal experts warn that Poland’s refusal to implement rulings of the Court of Justice of the EU could start to unravel the EU legal order.

The Commission has promised action, including by withholding 36 billion euros in grants and loans from the EU recovery and resilience fund, and activating a rule of law conditionality attached to the next EU budget that could mean the loss of further tens of billions.

Poland to expand army

PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski also vice-premier in charge of national security and defence) and Poland’s Defence Minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, on Tuesday presented the basic principles of a plan to modernise the Polish army, which includes almost tripling the number of soldiers.

“If we want to avoid the worst, which is war, we must act according to the old rule ‘If you want peace, prepare for war,” Kaczynski told a press conference on Tuesday. “The situation has worsened – we have a hybrid war, provocations, the Russian army and Russia’s imperial ambitions, the constant exercises of the Russian army,” he added.

While the text of the draft law is not on the table, the two politicians presented basic principles that would guide the transformation of the army. One goal, they said, is to increase the number of professional soldiers to 250,000 plus a 50,000 contingent of volunteers, compared to the current number of about 110,000.

Details were scarce both on the costs of the increase, which would last years: Kaczynski just said it would surely cost more than the 2 per cent of Polish GDP that is the current defence spending level – and on plans to modernise military equipment. Kaczynski suggested purchases of equipment from the US would be important, but European companies would play a role, too.

Ultraconservatives converge on Budapest

Fellow right-wingers Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and France’s Marine Le Pen met in Budapest on Tuesday, October 26, as both start preparations for respective elections next spring.

Le Pen, who will be running in French presidential elections in April 2022, visited Orban three days after she met the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Brussels.

During a joint press conference, she praised Orban’s handling of the migrant crisis, and promised that – if elected – she would seek to address what she called the European Union’s threat of member countries’ sovereignty. Le Pen also rejected the primacy of EU law over national legislation – an issue in which Hungary has sided with Poland, while the EU imposed harsh sanctions against Warsaw.

Le Pen’s meetings with her fellow rightists is seen as a part of her pre-election struggle with French far-right rival Eric Zemmour, who met Orban in September.

Besides using Le Pen’s visit to show off his high position in European ultra-conservative circles, Orban also held a pre-election rally in Budapest on Saturday, October 23, gathering several thousand people who came to hear his speech on the national day commemorating Hungary’s failed anti-Soviet uprising in 1956.

Orban’s main opposition opponent, Marki-Zay, a 49-year-old conservative provincial mayor who won an opposition primary election last Sunday, also held a meeting on the same day.

Recent polls indicate that Hungary’s elections next April may be the closest ones in recent history.

Diplomacy tests multiply for incoming Czech government

As the five-party “democratic bloc” prepares to take power in early November, foreign policy issues are piling up in Czechia.

For one, Poland’s Turow coal mine is poisoning more than Czech water, it seems. So much so, the incoming government this week called on Poland to return to negotiations over the open cast coal mine.

Polish officials say the feeling in Warsaw is that Prague can’t be trusted. The new boss, it seems to fear, may prove to be just the same as the old boss.

Poland’s refusal to close the mine, which sits on the border and according to the Czechs is polluting water supplies as well as the wider environment, in spite of a temporary order by the Court of Justice of the European Union, CJEU, has soured relations.

When the CJEU ordered Warsaw last month to pay €500,000 for each day it refused the order, things got personal between Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his Polish counterpart. Mateusz Morawiecki has refused to attend any event where the Czech premier was also present.

Poland has since refused to return to negotiations after leaving them on October 1, so the Czech negotiating team this week issued a new invitation, endorsed by the government that will be formed by five centre-right and liberal parties following elections on October 8-9.

Czech Prime-minister-in-waiting Petr Fiala confirmed that representatives of his ODS party have asked the Polish and Czech ministries to continue negotiations. “It is impossible to leave the issue unsolved when the current government is outgoing,” he said.

However, according to the Polish press, Warsaw remains wary, despite the offer of new talks and new partners. The cabinet is “reluctant to respond positively to the Czech challenge because it does not trust the Czechs too much”, writes Gazeta Prawna.

“We have to sit down as if nothing had happened [between Morawiecki and Babis],” one Polish government source told the paper. “But the question is how can we be sure that it will not turn out later that the new government has a problem [with any agreement reached].”

While Czech President Milos Zeman, the leading advocate of closer ties with China, appears to have slipped from power, the Czech liberal establishment continues its longstanding effort to push against closer links, angering Beijing.

Just as it did in May, when a Czech delegation visited Taipei in Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party was driven close to apoplexy this week when the small Central European state had the temerity to host a return visit by Taiwanese officials.

China “will take proper and necessary measures to firmly defend national sovereignty”, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin vowed, threatening unspecified retaliation, after the Taiwanese agreed with their Czech hosts to strengthen cooperation in science, healthcare, cyber security and other spheres.

The Chinese embassy also protested against the visit. China considers Taiwan its own territory and takes a hostile stance to any country or body recognising the island as an independent state.

However, the waning of Zeman’s influence is clear. Even Foreign Minister Jakub Kulhánek, from Zeman’s former CSSD party, which has long cherished close links to Beijing, condemned the Chinese response, ridiculing how China likes to “talk big”.

“In my point of view, such flexing of muscles does not have a place in diplomacy,” Kulhanek remarked. The Taiwanese delegation will travel on to Slovakia next week, a visit that will ensure Bratislava also ends up in Beijing’s bad books.

New corruption scandal shakes Slovakia

A police recording capturing former Slovak prime minister Robert Fico and ex-interior minister Robert Kalinak meeting several high-profile individuals connected to notorious corruption cases has emerged, as the prosecution of graft among former members of the top-tiers of the police, judiciary and the Smer-led governments continues.

As first reported by the Dennik N daily, the prosecution has documented the meetings, which allegedly confirm attempts to interfere with the investigation of major corruption cases.

During the recorded conversations, participants including the father of crony businessman Norbert Bodor and the son of former police president Tibor Gaspar reportedly discussed several prosecuted cases and press conferences.

Bodor and Gaspar are among a number of high-ranking police officers accused of having organised a group that manipulated investigations and gathered compromising information about opponents of the ruling Smer party, the Slovak Spectator highlighted.

According to pictures snapped from the recordings, first published by the news site, the meetings took place in a hunting lodge that was monitored by the police for several days.

Officers obtained one hour of audio and video tapes, as well as hundreds of pages of transcripts. Some reports claim that at one of the meetings, former interior minister Kalinak was trained to give the “best version” of his testimony to the police.

Former premier Fico reacted to the leaked footage by playing down questions from journalists and coming short of providing an explanation for sitting down with people who had a personal interest in discussing live cases under investigation.

“When you are about to look at how I eat bacon and cheese there – why do you care?” Fico asked at a presser, in a nod to one of the leaked pictures that show him eating at a table.

He went on to dictate headlines to the present journalists. “Write a title that Fico impacts criminal proceedings and he should be imprisoned,” he said in response to a question.

Meanwhile, an investigation by a group of journalists revealed that authorities sent millions of euros in pandemic first aid to suspicious shell companies, possibly costing the public up to 24 million euros.

In its report, the Investigative Centre of Jan Kuciak highlighted how the money was directed to companies that do not file final accounts and might not even have any employees. Several firms owe chunks of tax money, yet still received funds for allegedly “maintaining jobs”. Journalists were unable to locate either company but found most of the owners listed in Greece or the Balkans. Local muckrakers confirmed that these individuals were minor entrepreneurs.

In its response to journalists’ questions, the Slovak Labour Ministry failed to specify the details of its control mechanisms when it comes to pandemic state funding. It also refused to mention what the consequences will be for the companies named in the investigation.

Elsewhere, the Education Ministry at last confirmed the imminent rollout of a long-awaited reform that is touted to bring Slovakia’s education system up to speed with the 21st century. Minister Branislav Grohling noted that the overhaul will be driven by three main laws that have been already approved by parliament.

These include amendments to the school law, the law on pedagogic and expert employees, and the law on expert education and preparation. A total of 100 changes are envisioned to digitalise and modernise education, support inclusiveness and raise the competence of teachers.

But salary rises, a major sticking point for trade unions, were left off the table. “It is hard for me to say whether it will happen or not,” Grohling said in response to criticism, quoted by the TASR newswire.

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