By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A new charm offensive should buy Poland time in its confrontation with the EU over backsliding on democracy, but Warsaw will have to make some real policy changes to match the warmer words or risk losing some funds from the bloc.
Poland, under the Catholic, nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) in power since 2015, has become one of the main headaches for the EU, worried that some ex-communist states in eastern Europe are becoming more authoritarian.
The EU complains about Warsaw's steps to impose more direct government control of the courts, and has threatened to take action to defend the bloc's liberal values. The EU also wants Poland to drop its refusal to accept refugees to share the burden of a migration surge.
Last month, Beata Szydlo stepped down as prime minister after two years of unrelenting confrontation with Brussels.
Her successor, former banker Mateusz Morawiecki, has taken a less strident tone toward both the EU and domestic political foes, suggesting a PiS effort to ease tensions with Brussels and reach out to more moderate voters at home.
Morawiecki's milder words are a relief in Brussels and capitals of EU member states, anxious to avoid being pushed to go ahead with the so-called "nuclear option": an unprecedented Article 7 procedure to punish Poland.
Such a move would deepen divisions and consume the energy of a bloc already coping with Britain's departure. It would also almost certainly fail in the end anyway, subject to a veto by the chief PiS ally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Still, officials and diplomats in Brussels say they are not prepared to settle for mere words. They have other tools they can use to apply pressure, notably a coming round of funding decisions for EU spending in 2021-2027. The bloc is considering attaching conditions that could limit some funds to states that fail to meet rule-of-law standards.
"Whether the rule of law, or migration, it will all come to its head in the budget talks. There will be some real deals to make or break," said an EU diplomat.
Some speak of even tougher measures. Two diplomats said that EU states could threaten to reintroduce temporary border controls with Poland, a step that was made easier for security reasons since the bloc's migration crisis.
"The joint budget is a lot of money - but only that much. The other fish to fry is being able to travel and trade with no border checks that hurt business," said one of the diplomats.
Morawiecki's opening visit in Brussels will be followed with talks between his Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz and the executive European Commission's deputy head, Frans Timmermans, on Sunday.
"We need full respect for the rule of law in all our member states," Timmermans told the European Parliament this week. "It is a fundamental issue for the functioning of the EU."
Few in Brussels expect Morawiecki to sharply change the PiS line. He has said he is fully behind the PiS overhaul of the judiciary, which he says is needed to rid Poland of post-communist relics.
While Morawiecki is unlikely to backtrack soon on the major points of conflict with Brussels, he could offer some concessions in other areas, such as the environment, including disputes over forest logging and tightening of rules for greenhouse gas emissions.
Progress on the logging dispute could even be portrayed in Brussels as a step forward on the rule of law, since Brussels accuses Warsaw of violating European court rulings by felling too many trees despite being told by a tribunal to stop.
Brussels diplomats point to Hungary's Orban as an example of someone who has avoided any major retribution from the bloc despite antagonizing Brussels for years.
Rights groups say his steps to tighten the screws on critics, media, judges, academics and non-governmental organizations are weakening democracy. They are also similar to those pursued by Poland's PiS.
But unlike the PiS so far, Orban, in power since 2010, has not shied away from debating his policies with Brussels, keeping dialogue open and offering occasional concessions.
"Poland has to start a real dialogue and then we'll see. Article 7 can be pursued with more or less energy, it can still be on the agenda but not decided for now," another senior diplomat said. "Eventually, a nicer face won't be enough."
(Editing by Peter Graff)