By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Poland's new prime minister said on Thursday he expected the European Commission to launch an unprecedented punishment procedure against Warsaw next week after months of wrangling over the rule of law.
Mateusz Morawiecki, who took over as Poland's premier this week, has defended judicial changes pushed over two years by his predecessor from the same Law and Justice (PiS) party, saying they were necessary to heal the courts in the country.
Western European Union peers and the bloc's executive Commission say the reforms undermined court independence by putting them under more direct government controls.
This, as well as the euroskeptic, nationalist PiS' changes to the state media, have prompted the Commission to threaten for many months to launch the so-called Article 7 procedure against Warsaw.
PiS faced renewed accusations that it was muzzling free media after Poland's media regulator slapped a $415,000 fine on leading U.S.-owned news broadcaster TVN24 over its coverage of opposition protests in parliament last year.
It has also locked horns with the EU over large-scale logging in the unique Bialowieza forest, which Warsaw says is necessary to keep the woods healthy but Brussels and environmental groups say violate wildlife protection laws.
Bitter feuds over migration have added to the growing isolation of the bloc's largest ex-communist country since PiS won elections in late 2015.
Article 7 would see Poland's government denounced as undemocratic and could even lead to the suspension of Warsaw's voting rights in the EU. The latter, however, is unlikely as it would require the unanimous backing of all the other EU states, something PiS ally Hungary has vowed to block.
But Morawiecki, speaking ahead of his first summit of EU leaders in Brussels, seemed to accept that the blow was coming.
"If a process has started and, as far as I understand, the decision has already been made that next Wednesday the European Commission plans to start (the procedure), then it will most likely be triggered," he told reporters.
"From the start of such an unfair procedure for us, until it ends, we will certainly talk to our partners."
Morawiecki was due to meet the Commission's head, Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels and a senior EU official said the Luxembourger would still seek to dissuade Warsaw from going ahead with two laws under which half of Poland's Supreme Court judges would be sacked and PiS politicians would get to dominate a body that appoints judges.
"If the court changes go through then we will trigger Article 7," the senior official said. "If the changes are postponed until January, then we will see."
Poland's lower chamber of parliament has already approved them. They must still go through the PiS-dominated upper house and be signed by the PiS-allied President Andrzej Duda to enter into force.
While Morawiecki did stick to his guns over courts and Poland's persistent refusal to host some of the refugees who reach the bloc, he did appear to offer an olive branch to the EU on the Bialowieza forest.
Morawiecki said "of course we will respect the final ruling" of the bloc's top court, the European Court of Justice, after all legal procedures are exhausted.
Warsaw has so far continued the logging despite an interim order by the court to stop immediately, and now faces up to 100,000 euros in daily fines over that.
Morawiecki also said he would seek to convince France's President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the summit to soften the Paris stance on a reform of the bloc's labour laws.
Macron wants them tightened because of what he sees as giving too much of a competitive edge to cheaper labor from the poorer eastern Europe at the expense of France's own workers.
(Additional reporting Robin Emmott, Writing by Jan Strupczewski and Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)