Poland digs in over mine spat with EU

Poland and the EU are on yet another collision course after the Polish government doubled down this week on its refusal to close a controversial mine — or pay the fine the EU’s top court has imposed.

The fight centers on the Turów mine, which is near Poland’s border with the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic says the lignite-mining site was expanded in violation of environmental regulations, a charge Poland denies. 

The EU’s top court in May ordered the site shut down while the Czech Republic challenged the expansion, before issuing a €500,000 daily penalty in September after Poland refused to comply. 

Three months later, Poland seems no closer to resolving the standoff. 

“We are not going to hold up the Turów mine’s operations,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters at a news conference on Monday.

The situation has soured Poland’s relationship with the Czech Republic, which at the time was led by Andrej Babiš’ populist government, a friendly ally for Warsaw. The center-right Petr Fiala has since taken over from Babiš. 

It has also deepened a rule-of-law rift between Warsaw and Brussels, with Poland openly questioning the legitimacy of the EU’s highest court, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The obstinance is part of Poland’s bigger crusade against what it claims is EU overreach. The campaign has already cost Poland a delay in its first batch of money from the EU’s pandemic recovery fund.

Yet Morawiecki expressed no change in tact this week, calling the court’s rulings about the mine “unlawful.”

“The Turów mine and [the adjacent] power plant must keep operating,” Morawiecki said Monday. “Any decisions whether we will pay the unlawful penalty imposed on us — and whether we will find an appropriate legal formula to do so at all — will be made at a later date.”

Talks with the Czech Republic over resolving the disagreement also seem at a standstill. 

Before taking Poland to court, Prague had spent months trying to settle the problem amicably with Warsaw. Poland finally began talking to the Czech Republic in June, after the CJEU ruled on the mine. Yet talks have been in limbo since early November, when Warsaw offered a proposal to settle the issue with a €50 million “financial contribution” to Prague. 

In its most recent communiqué about the issue, Poland’s climate and environment ministry in early November said Prague was “readying its version of the settlement text.” The ministry also vowed to soon present the public with an update — but that has not come. 

Poland is in a bind over Turów. The CJEU-imposed fine has already climbed over €50 million, but there’s no real chance Poland will turn the lights off at the mine, which feeds lignite to the nearby power plant, an important element of the country’s power supply system.

Even without the Turów problem, Poland’s energy sector is coming under severe pressure after putting off for decades reforms that would reduce the country’s reliance on coal and lignite. 

The recent spike in the cost of carbon dioxide emissions permits has led the state-controlled utilities to file for major increases in electricity tariffs that will kick in on January 1. The average electricity bill will go up by 24 percent next year, Poland’s energy market regulator URE said earlier this month.

That has become a problem for the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is seeking to win its third term in office in an election due in the fall of 2023. 

The government blames the fast-rising prices of carbon dioxide emissions permits on financial speculators, and it has called for reforming the system. However, the government has also been raking in billions from selling the permits.

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