EU commission increases pressure on Poland
By Eszter Zalan
The EU Commission hopes to increase pressure on Poland ahead of the debate between commissioners next Wednesday (13 January) on the constitutional crisis in the eastern European EU member state, although no decision is expected.
The new Polish government led by the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) inserted friendly judges into the constitutional tribunal and made it harder for the tribunal to stop new laws, prompting a constitutional crisis.
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It also rushed through a controversial media law giving the government direct control over top appointments in public broadcasting, a move criticised by Guenther Oettinger the German EU commissioner for digital economy.
The vice-president of the commission in charge of overseeing the rule of law, Frans Timmermans, wrote two letters to Warsaw in which he requested information on the legislation.
The Polish government is yet to return with an answer, though there is no set deadline for them to comment.
Last Sunday (3 January), the EU Commission, in an effort put political pressure on Poland, noted that the debate next Wednesday could open the so-called rule of law mechanism, a process for checking the health of the democracy in a member state, which could eventually result in the suspension of voting rights in the Council of the European Union.
However, the bloc's executive has since backtracked and now says the meeting next Wednesday will be only a first debate on recent events, "taking stock" of political movements in Warsaw.
Timmermans, Oettinger and justice commissioner Vera Jourova are expected to prepare a detailed report for commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
One source said that Juncker's cabinet chief, Martin Selmayr, wanted to put extra pressure on the Polish government with the threat of launching the process as early as next week, but that some commissioners were urging for more caution.
Selmayr is very familiar with rule of law issues, as he served as chief of cabinet for former justice commissioner Viviane Reding, who has was at the forefront of similar debates with Hungary in the previous commission.
Even if the commission decides to launch the procedure, first it needs to analyse the situation in Poland and then come up with recommendations.
The day before the gathering of the college of commissioners will be crucial, as Poland's constitutional tribunal is to hold a meeting on Tuesday (12 January); its president has pledged not to involve the newly appointed members, which could mean a further escalation of the crisis.
Nevertheless, the commission is keen to act as fast as possible.
The view in the Berlaymont building of the commission is that revamping the constitutional tribunal effectively abolishes the checks and balances in Poland's democracy.
Officials suggest neighbouring Germany, a political heavyweight in the EU, is also very much interested in stopping Poland's slide towards populism.
Dismantling the constitutional tribunal in Poland has hit a particular nerve in Germany which holds its constitutional court in Karlsruhe in high regard and is a symbol of its exit from totalitarianism.
The rule of law mechanism was created in 2014 after it became clear that the EU had limited tools to deal with member states that passed controversial legislation challenging the fundamental values of the bloc, as highlighted by several years of political battle between Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban and Brussels.
It has never been tested, but its purpose is to deal with systematic problems in a country without resorting to the so-called Article 7 procedure that could eventually see the suspension of voting rights of the member state concerned.
Another way the EU could make Poland steer back from its course is the suspension of EU funds to the country, but officials insist that that is not on the table as reneging on operational contracts could mean opening "Pandora's box."