Wednesday

27th Jan 2021

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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.

Poland urged to halt 'purge' of top court

Next month Supreme Court judges could be removed in Poland - due to a controversial reform seen as a judicial purge by a government that wants to control the courts. The European Commission wants Warsaw to act now.

Opinion

While Poles defend courts, Kaczynski hijacks EU elections

While Twitter and EU bubble publications are flooded with photos of protesting crowds and "chains of light" in front of the presidential palace, the Law and Justice-controlled senate has adopted a law restructuring the electoral code for 2019's European elections.

Opinion

Rule-of-law deal: major step for Europe of values

At the very moment when an incumbent president across the Atlantic was carrying out staggering attacks on the foundations of democracy, the European Parliament obtained a historic agreement to protect the rule of law in Europe.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  2. CESIKlaus Heeger and Romain Wolff re-elected Secretary General and President of independent trade unions in Europe (CESI)
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersReport: The prevalence of men who use internet forums characterised by misogyny
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  6. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice

Latest News

  1. Giuseppe Conte: scapegoat or Italy's most cunning politician?
  2. Borrell to meet Lavrov, while Navalny behind bars
  3. Too few central and eastern Europeans at top of EU
  4. Rift widens on 'returns' deadline in EU migration pact
  5. EU adds new 'dark red' zone to travel-restrictions map
  6. Migrants in Bosnia: a disaster foretold on EU doorstep
  7. Navalny protests sharpen EU sanctions talks
  8. Why Russia politics threaten European security

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us