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15th Dec 2018

Poland defends controversial measures in EU letter

  • Ziobro used a more relaxed tone in his latest letter to the commission (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Poland’s government has defended its changes to the constitutional tribunal and media law in a letter sent Tuesday (19 January) in response to the EU Commission’s inquiry launched last week.

The tone of the letter signed by Poland’s justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, to EU Commission vice president Frans Timmermans is more conciliatory than previous letters by the minister, which have accused the Dutch commissioner of left-wing bias and "astonishing" lack of knowledge.

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There are no accusations that the EU Commission is trying to exert pressure on Poland in this letter, possibly signalling a shift in Poland’s strategy for dealing with the commission’s probe into its rule of law practices.

It emphasises that Poland's government and current parliamentary majority, held by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, is guided by democracy and the rule of law.

Ziobro wrote he was “glad to read your [Timmerman’s] declaration that the European Commission does not intend to challenge the outcomes of the democratic elections in Poland”, and welcomes the “assurances” of impartiality.

The four-page letter, seen by EUobserver, goes into detailed explanation of why the appointment of five judges by the previous government was problematic and went against Polish constitutional custom (the new government later appointed its own judges), and argues that the government did follow the court’s ruling with regards to the appointments.

It also argues that “the election and appointment of judges as a result of a parliament’s resolution … is not subject to the assessment of the Constitutional Court”, adding that the “Parliament is the only body which is competent to assess such a resolution”.

On Timmerman’s concerns over measures that curtail the tribunal’s ability to assess the constitutionality of laws enacted by parliament, the Polish letter argues the new measures will help to reduce the backlog of cases and shorten the time a verdict is produced, while the “varied composition of the court improves the likelihood of reaching balanced verdicts”.

It does not specifically address however the issue of raising the bar for decisions: now a two-thirds majority among the 15 constitutional judges is needed, instead of a simple majority, with a quorum of 13 judges instead of nine.

The minister expresses hope that they will be able to discuss the matter more in depth during Timmerman's upcoming visit to Poland.

Tuesday’s letter was the first Polish response since the EU Commission launched its so called rule of law framework last Wednesday, in which, after a period of dialogue with the member state, the Commission is to come up with an assessment and possibly specific recommendations.

Oettinger visit

In another short letter, also sent on Tuesday, EU Commissioner for digital affairs Guenther Oettinger offered to travel to Poland as well to discuss media pluralism and concerns over the Polish government trying to place the public broadcaster under its direct control.

Oettinger sent his letter in reply to justice minister Ziobro’s earlier provocative letter, which had been prompted by the German commissioner’s remarks that Poland needed to be put under “supervision”, referring to the Commission’s rule of law framework.

Ziobro then compared the idea of supervision by a German official to Nazi crimes. “You [Oettinger] demanded that Poland be placed under ‘supervision’. Such words, spoken by a German politician, have the worst possible connotations for Poles,” Ziobro wrote in an open letter earlier this month.

EU and Poland aim to calm tensions

EU Council president Donald Tusk and Polish president Andrzej Duda tried to calm tensions ahead of an EP debate on recent reforms in Poland that critics say threaten the rule of law.

EU commission puts Poland on the hook

The EU commission has triggered rule-of-law monitoring of Poland, in an unprecedented step, prompted by constitutional and media reforms. The move follows a nasty exchange of letters.

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