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BRUSSELS (AP) — Poland's new prime minister made his debut Thursday at a European Union summit, seeking to persuade European partners that controversial new Polish laws on the judiciary represent necessary reforms and not threats to democracy.
Mateusz Morawiecki, 49, was tapped last week by the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to replace Beata Szydlo. Her two years as prime minister were marked by bitter conflicts with the EU over migrants, the environment and the state of Poland's democracy.
His participation in the summit was a first test of whether the Western-educated former banker can bridge a deepening rift between his right-wing government and Brussels.
In his first press conference, he gave a hint of why he might have been picked. He revealed that his government expects the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, to formally warn his country next week that it is in breach of EU values, and said he would be having many conversations aimed at averting the move.
Morawiecki, who is multilingual and has international experience as the former banker, is seen as better suited to the task than his predecessor.
The step would embarrass Poland and could bring the ex-communist nation closer to being eventually stripped of its voting rights in the bloc.
He told reporters he expected for the Commission to trigger what is known as the 7.1 mechanism, which involves a warning. A later step, article 7.2, would entail sanctions. He called the process unfair.
Polish lawmakers passed two new laws last week regulating the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary, a body that appoints judges, giving the ruling party control over both institutions. If the laws pass, the ruling party will be able to immediately remove a significant number of judges on the top court and chose their replacements.
The ruling party says it is seeking to purge the justice system of old communist holdovers and corrupt judges out of touch with regular people.
Europe's top human rights body, the Council of Europe, disagrees, and said aspects of the laws bear similarities to the Soviet judicial system.
In Brussels, Morawiecki sought to convince European leaders that Poland's justice system is deeply flawed and needs the change.
A former anti-communist dissident, he said that some judges still sitting on Poland's Supreme Court had passed judgments on his fellow activists in the 1980s.
He told reporters that he would compare Poland's overhaul to reforms that were required in France after the fall of the Vichy regime, or in Spain after the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
"Europe should be a Europe of sovereign states who should have the right to reform their justice systems," Morawiecki said.
The laws still require the approval of the Senate and the president, and there were protests Thursday evening in some Polish cities held in last-ditch hopes of blocking them.
Poland's current isolation marks a sharp reversal for a country that has seen massive economic development since joining the EU in 2004 — which brought it an infusion of EU subsidies and foreign investment — and which until 2015 was an increasingly influential voice in European affairs. That growing clout was reflected in the election in 2014 of the Polish prime minister at the time, Donald Tusk, to lead the European Council.
"I hope that we will see a moment in which Poland will be treated again as the heart of Europe," Tusk said. "Everything is possible. It depends on the good will of Prime Minister Morawiecki, and certainly above all of the ruling party."
But, he said, "so far I have not seen the least desire for cooperation from the government."
Morawiecki appeared conciliatory on one issue that has bedeviled ties between Warsaw and European officials — widespread logging in the protected Bialowieza forest.
He said that if the EU court rules that the logging must stop, it will.
But he also made clear that Poland would give no ground on the issue of refugees, asserting his support for his ruling party's position of accepting none of the refugees stranded in camps in Italy and Greece that the bloc has tried to resettle elsewhere.
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