By Gabriela Baczynska
LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) – The European Union’s highest court said on Tuesday that Poland broke environmental laws with large-scale logging in an ancient forest, a ruling that comes as its nationalist government seeks to ease tensions with the bloc.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) delivered its final decision on the environmental row over the Bialowieza forest as EU ministers separately reviewed their negotiations with Warsaw over reforms to the Polish judiciary.
Critics say these reforms threaten the independence of the courts in Poland and the issue has become a flashpoint in relations between Poland and the bloc.
“In spite of the progress made (in negotiations), the results are not sufficient,” Germany’s EU minister Michael Roth said as he called for more concessions from Warsaw.
The European Commission’s deputy head Frans Timmermans, who leads the talks with Poland, echoed that view, saying there was “still a long way to go”.
The Polish parliament has already approved some amendments to the judicial overhaul to assuage EU concern that the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is weakening democracy in the bloc.
After two years of feuding with the EU over issues that also include migration, PiS has brought in a new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, who is seeking a rapprochement with the EU.
Morawiecki, in an interview on Monday, said more concessions were “likely” and government sources say Warsaw is now keen to resolve the dispute because it could otherwise hinder Poland’s access to EU development funds.
Warsaw might otherwise stand to lose since some EU members are pushing to make access to funding from the bloc’s joint coffers after 2020 conditional on respect for the rule of law.
Both Warsaw and the EU’s political capital Brussels have recently sounded more upbeat on chances for a deal, with diplomats pointing to mid-May as the make-or-break date.
“This is a real chance to seek a compromise solution, which would be in the interest of Poland and the EU,” Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said after the ministerial talks where he presented Warsaw’s latest thinking.
Bialowieza has played into the wider concerns over the rule of law in Poland as Warsaw for months ignored environmentalists’ protests and an ECJ order last July to stop logging immediately.
ECJ judge Marek Safjan said on Tuesday that the logging in the World Heritage site, which is also home to the rare European bison, had endangered many birds and insects.
Warsaw stopped the logging earlier this year as part of the broader campaign to improve ties with the EU.
Environment minister Jan Szyszko, who was responsible for the increased logging, has now been dismissed, and the ministry said on Tuesday it would respect the ruling.
“Poland will observe the ruling,” the current Environment Minister Henryk Kowalczyk said in a statement, adding Warsaw would be sending proposals to Brussels on a possible new protection plan for the forest.
In 2016, Poland had tripled logging quotas and said spruce and pine trees that were more than 100 years old had to be felled because of a beetle infestation. The ECJ said on Tuesday that was not justified.
Green groups say irreversible damage has been done to the delicate habitat.
“The Polish government should consider enlarging the national park,” said James Thornton, head of the environmental campaign group ClientEarth. “This is the only way to guarantee that devastation of the forest will not happen again.”
(Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko in Warsaw and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Richard Balmforth)