Poland tries to appease EU critics before Nato summit
The Polish parliament is expected to pass on Thursday (7 July) a bill that the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party says will alleviate EU concerns over the rule of law in the country.
”We all want to solve the problem of the constitutional court,” prime minister Beata Szydlo said on Wednesday.
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She said she hoped that opposition groups in Poland and the EU institutions in Brussels shared this view.
The constitutional dispute erupted last year when PiS tried to appoint loyalist judges to the Constitutional Tribunal and passed laws that critics says paralysed its work.
The court ruled that the reforms were unconstitutional, but the government refused to recognise the decision.
The European Commission in January launched an investigation into rule of law in Poland, leading to back-and-forth statements by both sides.
The EU executive stepped up the procedure on 1 June by sending an opinion detailing its concerns to Poland’s government.
Its text is confidential, but vice-president Frans Timmermans explained that the institution remained concerned over the appointment of judges, respect for court rulings and the court's effectiveness to review new legislation.
The draft PiS bill relaxes some of the party’s previous demands, for instance on the quorum of judges needed to take a decision.
But it says the tribunal must fully include the PiS-loyal judges in its work and that the tribunal’s earlier verdict, on the illegality of PiS intrusions into its work, should go in the bin.
The bill is likely to be adopted as PiS holds a majority in the Sejm, the Polish parliament.
Polish media reported that PiS wanted to pass the bill so as to please US president Barack Obama before a Nato summit that starts in Warsaw on Friday.
Problems of secrecy
The rapporteur, PiS MP Bartlomiej Wroblewski, told this website that the European Commission's opinion was “not without significance” in the process.
He added, however, that he hadn’t seen the text because it wasn't forwarded to the Sejm.
PiS critics told EUobserver they did not see the point of being kept in the dark by the EU executive.
”We can’t be sure the government acts on the promises made to the Commission,” an NGO, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, said.
”We can’t table amendments to address the Commission’s concerns,” an opposition MP, Ryszard Petru, added.
A ‘made-up’ process?
During the past months, PiS representatives said they will hold talks with Brussels but also questioned the real reasons behind the EU’s involvement.
Wroblewski told EUobserver he feared the Commission didn’t know the details of Polish politics and had been too quick to pass judgement.
PiS MEP Tomasz Poreba told this website the government felt it had been singled out unfairly. He said that his colleagues in the European Parliament vehemently attacked PiS, but ”not because they care about Poland”.
”They are just trying to support their allies in the Polish opposition,” the MEP said, referring to the centre-right Civic Platform and the liberal Modern parties.
”This conflict is the opposition’s only fuel,” he added. ”They have no ideas for Poland's future ... they tabled maybe three own proposals under the current mandate."
Poreba also challenged the legality of the commission probe.
The EU Council's own legal service has argued that EU treaties don't empower institutions to create a rule-of-law supervision mechanism.
The legal service recommended that the rule of law should be monitored by peer reviews in the Council instead.
”The Commission tries to build itself a position at the expense of other institutions,” Poreba said.
PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski warned in May that PiS would challenge the procedure in the the European Court of Justice (ECJ) if things ”got fierce”.
But a legal challenge brought by the Polish government would likely fail, as ECJ only reviews conformity with legally binding EU acts, while the rule-of-law opinion is of a non-binding nature.
Leonard Besselink, a professor of constitutional law at Amsterdam university, told this website that he disagreed with the legal service and thought the Commission had the right to issue opinions under the EU treaty.
He noted that the legal service did not necessarily represent the Council, where member states sit, and that the Commission had developed the rule-of-law mechanism at the request of EU capitals.
But he said the treaty didn't give the Commission right to take punitive action.
A high-ranking Polish diplomat also doubted the Commission would take further steps, such as recommending that Poland should lose voting rights in the Council.
”The Commission has stopped putting pressure on the government lately,” the diplomat told EUobserver on Wednesday.
Beyond the commission’s instrument
Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch liberal MEP, told this website it's "unfortunate that the Commission procedure doesn’t seem to work”.
She said that the Polish effort to adopt a law at odds with EU expectations was an ”act of defiance” to EU authority.
In ’t Veld is steering a report on ways to strengthen EU monitoring of the rule of law through the European Parliament and said she hoped to work with the Slovak EU presidency to create a more effective instrument.