Monday

21st May 2018

Poland belittles EU action on judicial reform

  • Pro-democracy protest in Poland - Duda vetoed two laws (Photo: Grzegorz Zukowski)

The Polish government has continued to mock the European Commission after it launched legal action over Warsaw’s judicial reforms.

The new wave of recriminations came after the Commission notified Poland in a formal letter on Saturday (29 July) that it had filed “infringement proceedings” over a law on judges’ retirement age.

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  • Kaczynski said Polish judiciary was "sick" (Photo: pis.org.pl)

The Commission said “vague criteria” on how the Polish justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, was to decide on prolongation of judges’ mandates allowed him to “retain influence over the judges concerned”.

It also accused Poland of sexual discrimination by letting women judges retire aged 60 and male judges aged 65.

It gave Warsaw one month to answer its concerns or face EU court action leading to potential fines.

Commission vice president Frans Timmermans in a public statement urged Ziobro to come to Brussels at his “earliest convenience” for the sake of “constructive dialogue”.

But Ziobro’s initial reaction indicated that might not go well.

“This is clearly a political battle with Poland. There are influential groups and politicians behind this, in whose interests it would be for Poland to be a weak country that was open to outside interference,” he told Nasz Dziennik, a right-wing Polish newspaper, in one interview.

He told wSieci, another conservative Polish newspaper, that Poland would follow Hungary’s lead in building a more authoritarian state.

“In politics, you need character. [Hungarian leader] Viktor Orban, who didn’t care about demonstrations, criticisms, or attempts to belittle him, but who changed the country despite the objections of the European establishment, showed this [character],” he said.

The Commission letter comes amid broader EU objections.

Timmermans, last week, threatened EU sanctions against Poland over a wider package of laws that would give Ziobro powers over supreme court appointments and over the National Council of the Judiciary, which controls the profession.

The so called Article 7 sanctions could see Poland's voting rights in the Council of the EU suspended in what would be an unprecedented move.

Earlier EU complaints included the Polish government’s meddling in the constitutional court.

Polish president Andrzej Duda has vetoed two of the contentious laws following street protests, but Ziobro said Duda was risking his head.

He said that if the laws fell, then “the president would be the first to fall” and that the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) would not back him for a second mandate.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice party chief, told Radio Maryja, a right-wing radio station, that the Polish judiciary had to be purged because it was "sick", referring to judges' links with the country's former Communist regime.

Polish opposition

Some Polish opposition politicians welcomed the EU’s intervention in what they say is Kaczynski’s plot to retain power by undermining Polish democracy.

Borys Budka, an MP from the Civic Platform party, said Poland could ultimately “lose its EU membership, because no democratic country would want to be in a union with a country where politicians ruled over judges”.

Katarzyna Lubnauer, an MP from the Modern party, said “if the Commission hadn’t reacted now … none of its following recommendations would have been respected either”.

The Polish foreign ministry’s official reaction to the Commission’s letter said it was “ready” to give a “meritocratic response” to its concerns.

But the ministry warned that judicial issues were “a matter of member states’ competence” according to EU law.

Duda’s chancellery also rejected the EU’s intervention despite the president’s vetes.

’Road to nowhere’

Krzysztof Szczerski, a Duda spokesman, said the Commission was on a “road to nowhere” and that “with every step it takes, it will face even higher costs” in terms of its credibility for its “inevitable” U-turn.

Jaroslaw Gowin, Law and Justice’s deputy-PM, said the Commission risked “destroying the EU” by its overreach.

The Polish culture minister, Jaroslaw Sellin, also attacked Timmermans on a personal level.

“Those at the head of the European Commission tend to be politicians without a strong democratic mandate, retired politicians at home, often [politically] bankrupt”, he said.

He said Timmermans’ political party in The Netherlands, the social democratic Labour Party, “is almost non-existent, it has no influence”.

EU Commission sets red lines for Poland on Article 7

The EU executive expects Warsaw to halt the judiciary reform and address concerns over the rule of law, and not to force out supreme court judges, or else the sanctions procedure will start.

Opinion

Young Poles can halt Kaczynski’s illiberal march

Debates are ongoing on whether president Duda vetoing two out of three bills on judicial reform should be seen as the opposition's success. But the protests brought about another, much less disputed success.

Opinion

Linking EU funds to 'rule of law' is innovative - but vague

Defining what constitutes 'rule of law' violations may be more difficult than the EU Commission proposes, as it tries to link cohesion funds in east Europe to judicial independence. A key question will be who is to 'judge' those judges?

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