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24th Aug 2019

EU court adds weight to concerns on Polish judiciary

  • The EU court said that the EU Commission's warning on Poland was "particularly relevant" to extradition assessments (Photo: Peter Teffer)

European Commission warnings on rule of law, such as those on Poland, can be a factor in halting extraditions, the EU's top court has said.

But the bar for halting them was set pretty high by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), helping Warsaw to claim moral victory.

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  • Ziobro: EU court taught Irish judge a lesson in due process (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The EU commission's formal warning, issued last December, which said that there was "clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland", was "particularly relevant" in extradition assessments, the ECJ said in Luxembourg on Wednesday (25 July).

"Maintaining the independence of judicial authorities is essential … in the context of the European arrest warrant [EAW] mechanism," it said.

For courts to be deemed impartial, judges' retirement rules and disciplinary boards must be independent, it added - echoing two specific commission complaints against Warsaw.

Those words weighed in on an Irish case in which a Polish national, Artur Celmer, had claimed he would not get a fair trial in Poland due to the Polish government's meddling with judicial independence, as alleged by the EU commission.

Wednesday's verdict meant that the Irish judge and any other judges from EU states considering whether to honour a Polish extradition request would first have to ask some questions.

It also meant that if the EU commission issued a Polish-type alert on any other EU state in future, for instance Hungary, then national courts would also have to proceed with extra caution.

The commission declined to comment on Wednesday, citing need for time to analyse the small print.

Its warning on Poland, the first of its kind in EU history, could lead to sanctions that would suspend Warsaw's voting rights in the EU Council.

It comes amid a wider clash on rule of law, EU migration rules, and national sovereignty not just in Poland, but also in Hungary and further afield.

If the commission appeared to have been aggrandised to the role of guardians of the EAW system, the ECJ set the bar pretty high for refusals, however.

The Irish judge would have to determine that there was a "systemic deficiency" in Poland, that it pertained to courts with jurisdiction on the EAW in question, and that the specific nature of the offence meant there was a "real risk" of a dodgy trial, the ECJ said, giving little hope to Poland's Celmer, who is wanted on drugs trafficking charges.

Refusal of an EAW should be "an exception", the verdict added.

Automatic suspension of all Polish EAWs could only go ahead if all 27 of the other EU states endorsed the EU commission's allegations, the verdict also said.

The legal niceties helped Poland to claim moral and political victory.

"The [EU] tribunal did not decree at any point in its statement that there had been violations of rule of law in Poland," Polish justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, said.

"Despite what the Irish court wanted, the tribunal did not agree to an automatic refusal," he said.

"The EU Court of Justice clearly, but very subtly, taught this [Irish] court a lesson - that there are rules, which have been in place for years, that have to be followed in such cases," he added.

Other Polish commentators were less positive, however.

The way the ECJ verdict was worded showed it believed the EU commission's allegations of judicial meddling in Poland, Mikolaj Pietrzak, the dean of the Warsaw Bar Association told Onet.pl, a Polish news agency.

"It's a very critical verdict on the changes in the Polish judiciary over the past two years," he said.

Some EU politicians read the ECJ the same way.

"This should be a stark warning for the Polish government that its path away from European democratic values is undermining its role in Europe and the world," Philippe Lamberts, the co-leader of the Green group in the European Parliament, said.

But for his part, Jago Russell, a civil society expert on extraditions, said the verdict would make little difference to business as usual no matter what the spin.

"We welcome the recognition that there are limits to mutual trust in Europe and that threats to fair trial rights can prevent extradition, but the [EU] court's approach will be incredibly hard to apply in practice," Russell, the head of Fair Trials, a London-based NGO, said.

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