The leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic met on Monday (24 May) to discuss solutions to the ongoing dispute around the Turów open-pit mine in Poland, which could see the Czechs drop their lawsuit in the EU’s Court of Justice.
The bilateral talks took place during a meeting of European leaders in Brussels, following the Court’s demand on Friday that Poland should cease operating the mine until the case is resolved.
So far, Poland has refused to shut the mine, which the Czechs allege is draining their water supply – an opinion supported by the Court.
After the talks on Monday, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki, confirmed that the mine will continue operating.
“I can once more underline that we are of course not going to stop mining, not stop the operation of the power plant, it is obvious because a stoppage would surely mean an ecological disaster and an energy disaster and, consequently huge social problems,” he told reporters.
He also said that the Czechs would drop the case but changed his message afterwards, saying the case will likely be dropped thanks to an agreement being drafted between the two sides.
This Czechs are telling a different story, however. Asked on Tuesday whether his country would withdraw the lawsuit, Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, said: “Definitely not. We are not withdrawing the lawsuit.”
Nothing has been agreed yet, he added, saying: “I want to refute the information that I approved something yesterday.”
Czech claim to compensation
In parallel to Monday’s talks between the Czech and Polish prime ministers, another meeting took place between government representatives and the leaders of the regions affected on both sides of the border.
“We repeated to Poland our conditions, under which we are eventually ready to withdraw the Czech lawsuit – it is mainly a written and financial guarantee that Poland will minimise and compensate the impacts of mining on the Czech Republic,” said the deputy of the Czech Environment Minister, Vladislav Smrž.
According to the Czech government, the only way to withdraw the lawsuit is to sign and start implementing a bilateral agreement. However, such an agreement has not yet been drafted and could cost €45 million to the Polish government, the region and the mine operator, PGE.
As Babiš said, there are only “contours” of what the agreement could look like, although Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller said that “the complaint is to be withdrawn after the final agreement is signed,” Reuters reported.
Turów mine will remain open
For now, this means the mine will remain in operation, despite the Court ruling. PGE has said the mine’s closure would mean shutting down the coal power plant which provides around 5% of Poland’s electricity while the mine itself provides thousands of jobs in the region.
“The Turów lignite mine has a valid, legally issued license and, on that basis, mining is and will be carried out. The [Court’s] decision is a path to a ‘grim deal’ energy transformation,” said Wojciech Dąbrowski, President of the Management Board of PGE.
However, the Court did not uphold the Polish argument based on its energy supply and campaigners have questioned Polish claims about coal jobs in the Turów region.
PGE also says it cannot shut down the mine because of its obligations to shareholders, an argument campaigners say is disingenuous.
“The main shareholder is the government so if they wanted to call an extraordinary meeting of the shareholders and simply vote the mine to close it would be perfectly possible,” said Kuba Gogolewska, a Polish campaigner against open-pit mines.
Gogolewska says he would have preferred an agreement rather than a sudden closure of the mine. “The reaction was a little bit of disbelief, we didn’t think it would actually happen. There is no plan B. It is obvious that the government and the company were also not prepared for it,” he explained.
The mine causing cracks in Europe
Meanwhile, tensions remain at the Polish/Czech border. On the Polish side, a roadblock was installed to stop cars from entering the Czech Republic, and EU flags have been removed from the city council building.
“There is a very big increase of hostility on the ground,” Gogolewska said.
A protest has been planned in the region for Tuesday and there are suggestions that Polish trade unions could organise a protest in Brussels or Luxembourg, where the European Court of Justice is based.
Similary, the Turów mine has become increasingly infamous in Brussels, where the case rose from a bilateral dispute handled by the European Commission to the first environmental court case brought by an EU country against another – and now a row at a European Council summit.
The Turów case has also caused ripples in the European Parliament, with two MEPs – one German and one Czech – protesting outside the European Commission in April over the extension of the mine.
“The temporary closure of the Turów mine is a success – despite the dirty campaigning by the PGE Group, Turów mine will be closed,” Mikulas Peksa, the Czech MEP involved in the protest, told EURACTIV on Friday after the Court decision was made.
However, Polish MEPs came out in strong support of the mine. “The political judgment of the European Court of Justice ordering the closure of Turów is unfair and contrary to the facts and findings of the European Commission,” said Anna Zalewska, a Polish lawmaker from the European Conservatives and Reformists group, which is dominated by Poland’s ruling PiS party.
“is this the beginning of a just transformation or another edition of the war against the Polish government?” she asked.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]