New Polish leader hoping to mend fences with EU partners

FILE - A Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 file photo showing Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, arriving for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels. Poland's new prime minister is looking to improve strained relations with partners in the European Union when he arrives in Brussels on Tuesday, Jan. 9. 2017. The Polish government's stance on justice reform and immigration has prompted so much unease within the EU that a procedure to strip the country of voting rights in the 28-nation bloc has been started. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, File)

BRUSSELS — Poland's new prime minister is looking to improve strained relations with partners in the European Union when he arrives in Brussels on Tuesday.

Mateusz Morawiecki, who replaced Beata Szydlo last month, is expected to stand his ground over several thorny issues that have raised concerns across the EU.

The Polish government's stance on justice reform and immigration has prompted so much unease within the EU that a procedure to strip the country of voting rights in the 28-nation bloc has been started.

"We are expecting Brussels to understand our position," deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said ahead of the introductory bilateral dinner between the new prime minister and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

EU leaders have questioned whether Poland, a member of the bloc since 2004, respects fundamental democratic rules over recent reforms to the judiciary.

Juncker's office sees the reform as blurring the separation of powers and gives the governing Law and Justice too much control over the judges.

Defending the changes, Morawiecki said in a New Year's address that "as a sovereign state we have the right to mend our justice system."

Poland's refusal to take in its share of an EU quota of refugees is another source of tension.

Ahead of the meeting, Morawiecki is set to shuffle his government. The changes will be carefully monitored by top EU officials to see if they signal a more emollient approach to EU standards.

Already resigned to the departure of Britain next year, the EU wants to maintain unity as much as possible this year.

"There is a kind of accumulated tension that is not convenient to either side and none of the sides wants to further escalate this tension," said Malgorzata Bonikowska, head of the Centre for International Relations think tank.

Both sides are in a bind.

The EU already faces a serious rebel in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, with his staunch opposition to the EU's migration policies. Orban could veto any attempt to strip Poland of its voting rights.

However, Poland has no interest in escalating the crisis either as any road to EU departure could threaten the billions the country receives from EU coffers. In the 2014-2020 budget, Poland has been allocated 86 billion euros ($103 billion) in EU structural and investment funds. A vast majority of Poles support EU membership.

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Scislowska reported from Warsaw.

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