The European Union’s top court said on Monday (20 November) Poland would be fined €100,000 a day if it did not stop large-scale logging in Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Warsaw has been locked in a legal battle with the EU for months over Białowieża, sitting on the border between Poland and Belarus and home to European bison as well as rare birds.
The nationalist, socially conservative Polish government tripled logging quotas there despite protests by environmental groups and criticism from Brussels that it was violating the bloc’s wildlife protection rules.
The Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) on Monday reiterated its July stance that Poland must stop the logging immediately pending a final ruling in a case the EU’s Brussels-based executive brought in front of the tribunal.
Poland has said the logging is needed to ensure the safety of people who pick mushrooms in the forest, among others, where trees have been weakened by a beetle outbreak.
After a protracted back-and-forth between the European Commission in Brussels, Warsaw and the court, the ECJ said in a statement that Poland had another 15 days to prove it was sticking to the ban on the logging, except for very few specific cases where public security would indeed be at risk.
It would then be up to the Commission to assess, and it could turn to the court again if it believed Warsaw was still breaking EU laws.
“The Court will then decide… whether today’s order has been infringed. If there is found to be an infringement, the Court will order Poland to pay to the Commission a penalty payment of at least 100,000 euros per day,” it said, counting from Monday’s notification.
The row feeds into a wider clash between the EU and its biggest eastern member where the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is accused of undermining democratic standards, including weakening judicial independence.
What the EU says is Warsaw disregarding the ECJ’s decisions adds to rule of law worries clouding Poland’s image.
The key sponsor for the logging is Poland’s Environment Minister Jan Szyszko, a conservative linked to a politically combative wing in the Polish Catholic Church, and a keen hunter himself.
ClientEarth lawyer Agata Szafraniuk said: “These huge fines are the Court of Justice’s response to the complete contempt with which Mr. Szyszko treats its emergency ban on logging. Currently, financial penalties are, unfortunately, an essential tool to ensure that the best-preserved primeval forest in Europe is protected from further harm. Trees are still being cut down every day, so the Court prescribed this measure to guarantee the full protection of this unique forest, and to avoid irreparable damage. This unprecedented decision of the Court of Justice has also a wider impact across Europe as it creates a practical and worthwhile instrument – financial penalties, to ensure that all member states abide by European law.”
Dariusz Gatkowski, biodiversity specialist at WWF Poland, said: “Polish citizens, most of them against logging in Bialowieza Forest, could now start paying penalties if Polish authorities continue to ignore the official order by the European Court and all previous warnings by the European Commission and the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The Court decision is a signal to the Polish Ministry of the Environment that disrespect for the law will not be tolerated.”