Monday

30th Nov 2020

EU court blocks Poland's bid to 'frighten' judges

  • Polish disciplinary board risked 'serious damage to the EU legal order', EU court said (Photo: Piotr Pawłowski)

The EU Court of Justice has said Poland must suspend the activities of a new judicial disciplinary board in order to prevent "serious and irreparable harm to the interests of the EU".

The board, created in 2017 as part of wider judicial reforms, was stuffed with 15 politically-appointed members by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

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  • Polish judge Igor Tuleya could be jailed for up to three years (Photo: Ralf Lotys)

It was to have claimed its first victim in March, when it was to have waived the immunity of Igor Tuleya, a judge who is also a fierce PiS critic, so that he could be prosecuted.

The charges - which he has ridiculed, but which could see him jailed - alleged he once illegally let journalists attend a closed court hearing.

And the whole affair was meant to "frighten other judges, to have a chilling effect, to show them: 'Look: He issued a verdict which we [PiS] think was wrong, so he was punished'," Tuleya told EUobserver in a recent interview.

His hearing was put off due to the pandemic, but now it cannot go ahead unless Poland ignores Wednesday's (8 April) EU court injunction, incurring potentially huge fines.

The "interim" ruling took effect immediately and was to last until the court issued a final one down the line.

The new disciplinary board meant "the mere prospect that they [Polish judges] may be subject to disciplinary proceedings which may be referred to a body whose independence would not be guaranteed is likely to affect their own independence", the EU court verdict said, echoing Tuleya.

And it meant "serious damage to the EU legal order and thus to the rights which individuals derive from EU law and to the values ... on which the EU is founded", the court added.

For their part, Tuleya, as well as Donald Tusk, Poland's former leader and the ex-president of the EU Council, have warned that if PiS did not back down, it could, one day, lead to Poland's EU exit.

The EU's justice commissioner, Vera Juorova, was less drastic on Wednesday.

The Polish disciplinary board was "problematic" and the European Commission had "grave concerns" about it, she told nine major European newspapers in an interview.

The PiS government said it was analysing the EU verdict.

But two PiS MPs - Arkadiusz Mularczyk and Sebastian Kaleta - attacked the EU court, saying it had gone beyond its competence.

"Today's decision was an act of usurpation harming Polish sovereignty," Kaleta said.

Free and fair?

Meanwhile, Poland is going ahead with presidential elections in early May despite the pandemic.

The decision favoured the incumbent, PiS-loyalist Andrzej Duda, who is being pushed by PiS-run state media, while other candidates cannot campaign due to a lockdown.

The election is to take place by postal vote, a first for the country, which pushed through a new law about it on Monday

But Jourova was also "worried about free and fair elections and the quality of voting, about its legality and constitutionality", she said.

"If I was a Polish citizen, I'd want to know exactly how this vote will take place, because it's not long from now," she added.

The validity of the election is to be decided by Poland's Chamber of Extraordinary Control and Public Affairs.

But the chamber has also been stuffed with PiS loyalists, raising concerns similar to those on the new judicial disciplinary board.

The chamber "will expose all of us not only to legal chaos, but may deprive Poles of their electoral rights," Krystian Markiewicz, a senior Polish judge, said on Wednesday.

And given the similarities, "today's CJEU [EU court] decision not only clearly prohibits the Polish government to illegally repress judges ... but has a much broader effect - it should close the way for abuse of the arbitrary recognition of the elections' validity", Markiewicz added.

Orban power

Jourova went on to raise the alarm on Hungary, in a sign of wider EU problems with rule of law, including in Malta and Romania.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's recent measures - to rule by decree during the health crisis - "lacked an end date" for the special powers to expire, Jourova noted.

The commission could not allow him to have "uncontrolled powers", she said.

"Parliamentary control and control by independent media are now more important than ever," she added.

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