Merkel said the worsening dispute between Warsaw and Brussels over changes in Poland's judicial system touches on "the basis of cooperation inside the European Union." And the EU's executive branch dismissed Poland's position that it should stay out of the country's legislative affairs if it feels democratic standards are threatened.
The EU Commission has been taking on Poland for perceived flaws in the rule of law after the Law and Justice party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski came to power two years ago. A primary point of contention is legislation the government aggressively pushed through to put the court system under the ruling party's control.
The Commission, echoing the concerns of Polish government critics and some other nations, has said the moves threaten to reduce the independence of judges and increase government interference. Poland's Prime Minister Beata Szydlo described the criticism as "unjust" in a video statement posted Tuesday on Twitter.
Szydlo insisted that Poland "respects the rule of law and is a democratic nation," as well as a pro-EU nation "guided by solidarity" and ready to defend the 28-member bloc's values. The Law and Justice party has criticized the EU as overly bureaucratic and meddlesome in national affairs, reserving special scorn for EU Council President Donald Tusk, a longtime political opponent of Kaczynski.
The tension edged up another notch on Monday, when Warsaw sent the EU a letter stating that its criticism of the judicial changes "go beyond the Commission's authority." Commission spokeswoman Vanessa Mock fired back on Tuesday. "It is something we would actually quite powerfully refute," Mock said.
Seeking to deflect the dispute with EU leaders, Poland's Szydlo said Europe should not be divided in face of ensuring the continent's security. Merkel, meanwhile, said that there is not much choice but to raise concerns. "It's not about the rule of law or sticking together. Sticking together in the EU while abandoning the rule of law wouldn't be the European Union anymore," she said.
In some of her most pointed comments to date on Germany's neighbor, Merkel said, "However much I want to have very good relations with Poland ... we cannot simply hold our mouths and say nothing for the sake of peace."
However, Hungary came to Poland's defense. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said the EU needed to deal with more important issues. "While we live under the most serious terror threat in Europe, the continuous singling out of some member states, Poland, for example, needs to be abandoned," Szijjarto told reporters Tuesday. "Naturally, if someone would want to introduce EU sanctions against the Poles, we will veto it."
Merkel is scheduled to meet with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Berlin on Wednesday, when Poland is expected to be one of the main points of discussion.
Moulson reported from Berlin. Monika Scislowska contributed from Warsaw, Pablo Gorondi from Budapest.