By Wiktor Szary
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's prime minister appeared to escalate a conflict with the European Commission on Friday, declaring Poland is a sovereign state and will not bow to external pressure.
The European Union's executive arm is investigating whether Poland is violating the rule of law, and it said on Wednesday it would send its criticisms to Warsaw by Monday unless it saw significant progress on problems it had already identified.
That drew a heated response from Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, who said in a speech to parliament that Poland will "never yield to any ultimatum."
"The Polish government will never allow for anyone to impose their will on Poles," Szydlo said. "I am the prime minister of the Polish government, and my compatriots' opinion is and always will be supreme. I am a European, but above all I am a Pole."
The row stems from changes that Poland's newly elected government imposed on the country's constitutional court late last year, which increased the size of majorities required for rulings and changed the order in which cases are heard.
The EU said those changes undermined the court's independence, and it responded in January with an unprecedented inquiry into whether the government, formed by the eurosceptic Law and Justice party (PiS), has breached democratic standards. It was the first use ever of the commission's Rule of Law framework.
In theory, an EU decision that Poland had breached the standards could eventually lead to sanctions such as the suspension of Poland's voting rights in the EU.
The government has signaled that the differences between two sides had narrowed, although it said it would need more time to resolve the issue. It has agreed to reverse some but not all of the changes affecting the court.
But PiS also argues it has an electoral mandate to carry out changes it deems necessary. And it says the top court had been too closely allied with the former centrist, pro-EU government. Szydlo's speech suggests its position may be hardening.
It also has friends within the EU. Speaking earlier on Friday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom PiS considers an ideological and political ally, said that Poles were being treated unfairly and Brussels will never win its battle against Warsaw.
But a response to Szydlo's comments by one commissioner seemed to indicate the EU wouldn't back down, either.
"Just like the Polish government has its prerogatives and duties, so do we," said Gunther Oettinger, the commissioner for digital economy and society, told reporters during his visit to Katowice, in southern Poland.
"Our duties come from treaties, including the duty to safeguard the rule of law in EU states."
(Reporting by Wiktor Szary, Wojciech Zurawski, editing by Larry King)