Czechia’s case against Poland over a key mine’s air and water impact may signal a watershed moment for the group.
On February 26, Czechia sued Poland at the European Court of Justice, challenging the extension of the Turow coal mine in the EU’s first-ever environmental legal case between member states. The court may temporarily halt the mine’s operations and Poland will likely face further legal action and financial penalties should it lose the case and fail to comply with the ruling.
– The suit was filed due to concerns over groundwater drainage and other environmental effects from the mine that would affect border populations
– The case alone is unlikely to lead to the mine’s permanent closure, but EU regulations and emissions pricing will eventually force the issue
– The suit may mark a broader rift between the countries of the former Czechoslovakia and their fellow V4 members
ENERGY, CLIMATE, AND CENTRAL EUROPEAN TIES
Czechia filed its case against Poland’s expansion of the Turow mine in the European Court of Justice following official complaints and months of high-level bilateral negotiations. The European Commission had also previously expressed concerns on the issue, stating in December that Poland had made errors in transparency and applying EU provisions on environmental impact assessments. According to Czech estimations, the Turow mine’s expansion will jeopardise water supplies for approximately 30,000 residents of the border region between the two countries and generate increased air and noise pollution. Czechia is seeking a court injunction to halt operations at the mine, which produces high-pollutant lignite coal. Last year, the Polish government extended the Turow mine’s concession to operate by six years, and the state-controlled PGE utility is looking to have its license for the site extended to 2044.
The lawsuit came just nine days after the countries’ leaders met, along with those of Hungary and Slovakia, to discuss 30 years of cooperation and common goals. This coalition, known as the Visegrad Group or V4, was established by the four Central European countries’ leaders in 1991 by a declaration of cooperation with the aim of pursuing EU integration. The Visegrad Group as a whole has previously been largely cohesive in its opposition to EU climate measures and migration policies.
AN END TO TUROW?
Whether this lawsuit will ultimately prompt Poland to roll back its plans to expand the mine remains unclear, but it is unlikely. Poland’s inaction so far on the issue is unsurprising given the important role that coal production plays in Polish society. Poland has the highest employment in the coal mining sector of the entire EU, with some 99,000 miners. Poland is reliant on coal for approximately 80% of its energy needs and 8% of the total coal used for electricity in the country originates from the Turow mine alone.
At the same time, Poland has received the largest guarantee of all EU members from the European Commission’s Just Transitions fund, with €2 billion in public and private funding allotted toward helping the country transition away from coal and other high-pollution industries. However, such a generous outlay does not necessarily mean that a transition will be forthcoming in the near term. A major coal industry restructuring in the 1990s led to hundreds of thousands of job losses and enduring negative attitudes toward cutting coal dependency, and the experience of early pilot projects in Central Europe indicates that Just Transition grant funding may prove difficult to secure.
Despite its vow to reduce its energy dependence on coal to 60% by 2040 and to phase out coal mines entirely by 2049, Poland has planned the opening of new mines even as it closes older extraction sites. Expert observers believe that Poland’s current leadership is unlikely to permanently shut down the Turow mine, but that increasing emissions prices and regulations will eventually force its closure. While the lawsuit and any subsequent fines may not prove the decisive factor in closing the mine after an initial injunction, EU economic pressure and other measures in the aggregate will likely achieve the same result in the long term.
THE FUTURE OF THE VISEGRAD GROUP
Whatever its effect on the Turow mine itself, this lawsuit could further strain ties and unity within the Visegrad Group. Its member countries have been at odds with Brussels in the past on issues beyond energy and climate, with all four coming out in 2015 to vehemently oppose the EU’s migration policy during the peak of the migration crisis in Europe. However, only the leaders of Hungary, Poland and Czechia publicly opposed a 2020 proposal to overhaul the migration and asylum system, despite saying it was unacceptable to the Visegrad Group as a whole.
The notable absence of Slovakia’s leadership in recent V4 statements on migration is indicative of the growing distance between the country and its fellow Central European states. Slovakia is the lone eurozone member, and Bratislava has criticised Poland and Hungary for their attempt to establish a V4 Institute of Comparative Law to support alternative views on the rule of law in Europe. Poland and Hungary have long butted heads with the EU over rule of law and democracy concerns.
Czechia’s government did not publicly endorse the V4 Institute of Comparative Law and it has not taken the hard-line stance on opposing EU norms on rule of law that Poland and Hungary have. Despite Warsaw and Budapest’s insistence to the contrary, this issue seems to be a point of divergence rather than a unifying factor within the Visegrad group.
As stated above, the Turow mine case marks another departure from Central Europe’s policy status quo. Czechia and Poland worked together in June 2019 to block an EU proposal to reach bloc-wide carbon neutrality by 2050. Czechia later joined the EU pledge, as did the formerly resistant Hungary, following reassurances on nuclear energy policy. Once again, however, Slovakia did not feature publicly alongside its fellow V4 countries as one of the initiative’s staunchest opponents. Given Czechia’s willingness to compromise on carbon neutrality — in stark contrast to Poland, the sole EU member abstaining from the pledge — the lawsuit on the Turow mine could mark a widening rift between the country and its fellow V4 member on the energy issue as a whole.
Despite a domestic political will to reduce coal dependence, Czechia continues to rely on coal for approximately 40% of its own energy needs. Until this is cut down, Prague will likely compromise or abstain from comment on this and other issues, joining Bratislava in its largely quiet opposition to the brasher Budapest and Warsaw.