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15th Sep 2019

Poland becomes first in EU history to face sanctions

  • Timmermans said Poland has depicted him as a 'lone madman' (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The European Commission has triggered an unprecedented sanctions procedure against Poland, prompting an immediate backlash.

"It's with a heavy heart that we've decided to trigger article 7 point 1 [of the EU treaty], but the facts leave us no choice," Frans Timmermans, the Dutch commissioner in charge of the file, said in Brussels on Wednesday (20 December).

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  • Morawiecki agreed to meet Juncker in January (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

He said the Polish government had seized political control of courts and judges, creating a "clear risk of a serious breach of rule of law".

"Today in Poland, the constitutionality of legislation can no longer be guaranteed," Timmermans said.

"There is an issue with the separation of powers, which is no longer in place," he added.

Wednesday's decision could lead to Poland's voting rights in the EU Council being suspended in the new year.

Member states and MEPs will decide in early 2018 whether they back the commission's conclusions and whether to subsequently enact article 7 point 2 on the voting restrictions.

France and Germany have already said they stand by the commission, while Hungary has said it stands by Poland in the biggest rift between old and new member states since the 2004 wave of enlargement.

Timmermans underlined the gravity of the events.

He said defending the rule of law in member states was an "existential question" for the EU.

He also thanked Polish people for having helped to end Cold War-era divisions in Europe, adding: "Poland, for me, is a member of the EU that the EU cannot do without".

He said there was still plenty of time for Polish authorities to back down.

The commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, the same day invited Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki for talks on 9 January to try to "overcome the differences we presently have".

Poland reacts

Morawiecki agreed to come, but he added that "the reform of the judicial sector in Poland is necessary".

Zbigniew Ziobro, the Polish justice minister, also indicated that the Polish government would fight to the bitter end, including, if it had to, in the EU court in Luxembourg.

"Poland will only be a valued country in Europe and the EU if it has fair and efficient courts, so we have to ensure that the courts finally start working fairly and properly, and to continue the judicial reforms," he told press in Warsaw.

A Polish government spokeswoman said "these [EU] procedures are unnecessary because there is no basis for them. There won't be any sanctions".

The judicial dispute aside, the Polish government has also seized control of state media.

Timmermans said he expected to become a target of disinformation as a result of Wednesday's decision.

"I'm not naive. I know some will try to construe this as an attack on Poland or an attack on the Polish people. We've seen it before," he said.

Timmermans spoke of "myths spread in Polish media" that he was just "one madman in the commission who can't let go of this".

The Polish reaction on Wednesday contained misleading statements.

Ziobro said the commission was angry that Poland had refused to raise the retirement age of women judges.

He also said the Polish judicial reforms "did not contain any solutions that were not already in place in other EU countries' systems".

Disinformation

The commission had in fact complained about Poland's use of retirement criteria to sack independent judges.

The judicial reforms were also deemed to cross red lines by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, by the UN, and by the OSCE.

The Polish government spokeswoman said "to be honest, we haven't heard any concrete accusation" from the commission.

But the commission set out its objections to 13 Polish laws in three formal recommendations and in more than 25 informal letters in the past two years.

The Polish government also said the EU affair had been cooked up by Polish opposition parties.

But that did not deter Donald Tusk, the EU Council president and a former Polish prime minister, from speaking out on Wednesday.

He said the Polish government had "put itself above the law".

"Poland, and I think it's a deliberate policy, has turned its back to the whole EU and, more broadly, to the West," he said.

Austria?

The last time the EU discussed article 7 was when a far-right party joined a coalition in Austria 17 years ago.

A far-right party joined the government in Austria once again this week.

But Timmermans said there was no talk of sanctions because the coalition pact did not foresee anything that went against EU norms.

"The commission will judge the Austrian government on the basis of what they do … if the actions of the Austrian government indicated a clear risk of the breach of rule of law, the commission would act," he said.

MEPs put 'Article 7' against Poland on launch pad

MEPs urged Poland to comply with the EU treaties and to halt the 'reform' of the judiciary that could further undermine the rule of law in the country. Polish PM Beata Szydlo called the vote 'outrageous'.

New Polish PM visits Hungary in snub to Brussels

In his first official bilateral visit since taking office, Poland's new prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki travels to Budapest, which vowed to defend Warsaw from any EU sanctions over its judicial reforms.

New Polish PM aims for 'progress' on rule of law

The new Polish prime minister has hit a more conciliatory tone in Brussels when meeting EU commission chief Juncker, but sticks to the judicial reform despite the threat of possible sanctions.

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