A day after the Polish Constitutional Court has placed itself outside the European legal order, MEP Beata Kempa stands in front of the town hall in Bogatynia, in the extreme south-west of Poland. Kempa says an EU conflict can now be settled in Polish favor. She stands on the doorstep, promising to keep the local lignite mine open – in violation of an interim judgment of the European Court of Justice. “It is now clear that Polish laws are more important than EU decisions. That this mine doesn’t have to close. And that we are not going to pay a cent”, says the stocky woman, her hands folded Merkelly.
The mine Kempa is talking about is the 3,000-hectare Turów lignite quarry. The mine is wedged between the town of Bogatynia, the Czech and German borders. The ‘cents’ are a penalty of 500,000 euros per day that the European Court of Justice imposed in September for each day that lignite extraction continues. The situation is acute, because deepening of the mine threatens to leave entire Czech villages without drinking water. On the Polish side, thousands of jobs and 5% of the nation’s electricity production are now at stake. It is a neighbor dispute on an unprecedented level. Never before has an interstate conflict within the EU been so high that the Court in Luxembourg imposed a fine.
Never before has an interstate conflict within the EU escalated so much that the Court in Luxembourg imposed a fine
Negotiations between the Polish and Czech governments to settle the matter amicably have so far come to nothing. And that is, according to Kempa, a member of the party Solidarna Polska of the radical Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, but a good thing too. “We now have new arguments in our fight with the Czechs. The EU does not have the power to decide on this,” she says.
Poland’s position in the EU could become untenable
Milan Starec makes herbal tea in a kitchen on the Czech side of the border. “Look, there is still water coming out of the tap,” jokes the local activist. When he moved here with his blended family five years ago, he could only see the tops of the seven towers of the power plant, beyond the mine, from his window. For a year now, the open, grey-yellow mine self has been creeping closer and closer. From two kilometers to barely a kilometer from his garden gate. Intermediate forest and corn fields have disappeared. “When there is no wind, we hear the conveyor belt that transports the coal and debris,” he says, showing a noise pollution app on his phone.
Starec is of course concerned about the value of his 150-year-old half-timbered house, he admits, but especially about the disappearing groundwater. His village Uhelna and neighboring towns (10,000 inhabitants in total) are not connected to a central water network, but to a local well, which drains. It’s like this: the water from these hills looks for the lowest point. And since the mine excavation is not only getting bigger, but also deeper, it sucks the environment dry. “If nature could take its course, the mine would become a lake. But because they keep pumping out the water there, it’s running out here,” says Starec.
The Czechs had complained about this before, but the issue escalated when Poland extended the mining license early last year and the mining area was also expanded. The Czech government brought a case to the European Court in Luxembourg because Poland would not have adhered to European rules during that enlargement. An environmental impact assessment was not carried out and a thorough consultation procedure was skipped. Poland does not dispute this. In fact, in 2018 the national mining law was amended to make it easier to renew licenses prior to EU membership (2004).
The substantive hearing of the case in Luxembourg is planned for the end of this year, but due to the acute water shortage in the Czech villages, the Court ordered in May to immediately stop mining. The risk of ‘serious and irreparable damage’ on the Czech side outweighs the repairable financial damage Poland suffers from the loss of jobs and electricity production. When Poland ignored the interlocutory sentence, the daily fine was imposed in September. The counter now stands at 12 million euros, but the European Commission – the debt collection agency in such situations – has not yet taken any steps to collect the penalty.
On the Polish border, the Court’s ruling is met with anger and incomprehension. Coal is almost sacred in Poland, 70 percent of the energy is still generated with it. Many mines run on subsidies and are powered by CO .2pricing even less profitable. However, conflicts with Brussels and rising gas prices are encouraging Poland to be self-sufficient and retain coal.
How could a single judge, far away in Luxembourg, make a decision “that destroys the lives of 20,000 people,” says miner and union leader Piotr Kubis. According to him, so many people depend on the mine, the power plant and all the small businesses around it. “If we give in, this area will die out. Then everyone has to go and work abroad.”
The EU does not have the power to decide on this
Beata Kempa Polish MEP
If there is one place that benefits from the EU’s open borders, it has to be Bogatynia. The town is located in ‘the appendix’ that dangles from the southwest of Poland. Secluded from the rest of its own hinterland, but excellently connected to neighboring countries. Many Poles already work in Germany and the Czech Republic, especially in the automotive industry. Germans and Czechs come here to refuel and do their shopping.
But the Pool Kubis is backing his government in opposing the mine’s closure and the greater “fight against the undermining of our sovereignty.” Last week’s decision by the Polish Constitutional Court provides additional ammunition to ignore European case law. “We can do just fine without the European Union,” says the trade unionist.
The incendiary atmosphere is fueled by local rumors and roaring reports by the pro-government state broadcaster, which has gone out to broadcast MEP Kempa’s speech in full. A bar owner in Bogatynia put up a large sign: “We don’t serve Czechs.” A resident, who does not want her name in the newspaper, shouts that “those Czech swine should solve their self-made problems”. Piotr Kubis has the wildest theories about who is really behind the Czech lawsuit. And he’s heard “they all have swimming pools on that side of the border.”
Although there is no swimming pool in the village of activist Starec, there is a clear difference in wealth. Here on the hills live Czech yuppies with good office jobs who have settled in the country. Who can afford to worry about the climate. For example, Starec has all kinds of suggestions for the ‘stubborn, arrogant and incompetent’ Polish government to close their mines faster and switch to renewable energy. “I understand that they cannot put all those people on the street overnight. But eventually the mine has to close. They can even receive a European subsidy from the transition fund.”
Reportage: The Lost Battle of the Polish Miners
Meanwhile, Polish miners toil in the valley, caught between international pressure and their own government. Bogatynia (which literally means rich) is one of the most prosperous municipalities in Poland because of the mining income on paper, but residents hardly notice this. Parts of the town look neglected, there is a lot of vacancy. “We live here from day to day,” says Wanda Tkaczyk, 72, who is walking home with her groceries. Her late husband once moved all the way from Warsaw to work in the mine. Of her pension of 1,200 zloty (265 euros) per month, she spends almost half on water, electricity and heating. She would not be able to make ends meet without the help of her son, who works in a Czech car factory. “I don’t know what is true about all the stories about the judges and about the mine. But if the mine closes, all our problems here will get even worse.”