Wednesday

13th Dec 2017

Polish leaders play down EU 'opinion'

Poland's governing party Law and Justice (PiS) has played down the importance of the European Commission’s opinion on rule of law in Poland, which was sent on Wednesday (1 June).

Foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski told Polish radio he had not even looked at the report.

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“It came in yesterday [Wednesday], I forwarded it to the prime minister and the president. I may have the chance to read it in the coming days,” he said.

Poland’s prime minister Beata Szydlo sent an email on Wednesday evening to PiS supporters, but it contained no mention of the report.

Instead, she hailed an agreement on changes to the minimum wage in Poland.

The spokeswoman of PiS parliamentary group Beata Mazurek restated the party line that the Commission lacked the authority to meddle in Poland's sovereign affairs.

Social-conservative party Law and Justice won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections in November and quickly implemented a series of controversial reforms.

The Commission launched a three-step inquiry into the rule of law in Poland on 13 January - the first time such measures have been taken.

The first step was an assessment of the situation, the second is making recommendations to the Polish government, and the third will be a follow up to the implementation.

The Commission formally adopted the opinion on Wednesday, but has not made it public.

Vice president Frans Timmermans simply restated the issues covered by the inquiry in a press conference on Wednesday.

“To briefly refresh your memory, the issues that concern us are the composition of the constitutional tribunal - Poland's highest court - the publication of its judgments and the respect for them, and the reform of the court's functioning through a law known as the constitutional tribunal act,” he said.

Critics say PiS is attempting to pack the court with its supporters to give it a free hand to change the constitution.

Leaning on Hungary

If the government fails to address the issues, the Commission could trigger article 7 of the treaty on the European Union. That could entail sanctions, such as losing voting rights in the council.

Polish leaders are confident that article 7 is an empty threat.

It takes unanimity to trigger sanctions under article 7, and Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban has said he will never agree to sanctions on Poland.

Ryszard Petru, leader of the opposition Modern party, accused the PiS government of relying too heavily on Orban.

“The Polish government is handing over its sovereignty into the hands of the Hungarian government,” he said on Wednesday.

A legal expert told EUobserver it's technically possible to overcome the risk that Hungary would block sanctions.

"The current presence of two ‘illiberal’ national governments in the EU would seem to make the sanctioning arm of Article 7 virtually impossible to deploy," said Laurent Pech, a professor of European law at Middlesex University in London, "unless you consider triggering this provision against both Hungary and Poland at the same time."

"Such a scenario is however highly unlikely if only for diplomatic reasons and the support provided to Orban by the EPP," the scholar added, referring to the parliament's largest group that Orban is part of.

According to the rule-of-law framework, the Polish government must respond to the commission’s opinion “within reasonable time”.

The government’s spokesman Rafal Bochenek said the government had forwarded the opinion to the parliament.

“The parliament is currently working on legislation that will allow to solve the constitutional conflict,” he said.

An expert group appointed by PiS will present a report on the constitutional crisis next week in the Polish parliament. MPs will draft a new legal proposal on the functioning of the constitutional court on the basis of the report’s conclusions.

Analysis

EU still shy of 'nuclear option' on values

The EU commission has moved forward with its rule-of-law probe on Poland, but critics say that a better framework is needed to uphold values.

What does EU scrutiny of Poland mean?

The EU Commission will discuss on Wednesday the state of play in Poland, and might launch a monitoring procedure against Warsaw. But what does this procedure mean, and does it matter?

EUobserved

How to build an illiberal democracy in the EU

With Brussels increasingly worried by Poland, we take a look how Hungary's Viktor Orban created a template for dismantling democratic checks and balances inside an EU state.

Poland tries to appease EU critics before Nato summit

The parliament passed a bill meant to address foreign critics on judicial reform. NGOs and opposition parties said it did not square with EU demands, but those demands are being kept secret, weakening their hand.

Romania wants EU signal on Schengen membership

Bucharest expects other member states to decide on its accession to the passport-free area before it takes the rotating EU presidency on 1 January 2019 - amid criticism of a controversial new justice reform.

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