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18th Jan 2019

Polish reform deepens rule-of-law threat, Timmermans says

  • Timmermans is still hoping for dialogue in person with Polish ministers (Photo: European Commission)

A new Polish judicial reform risks aggravating the systematic threat to the rule-of-law in the country, the EU Commission's vice-president Frans Timmermans told MEPs on Monday (6 November).

Timmermans urged Polish authorities to take into account the concerns of the EU executive as well as other watchdog bodies, like the Venice Commission's opinion and make sure the planned reforms, and the two draft laws proposed by president Andrzej Duda in September do not infringe EU rules.

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"The Commission is of the opinion that these laws do create a threat to the rule of law, a systemic threat to the rule of law in Poland," Timmermans told the civil liberties committee, ahead of a plenary debate on Poland in the parliament next week.

Timmermans said the new laws give the justice minister power to appoint and dismiss senior judges, allowing for political interference.

He said the Commission also has legal concerns over the justice ministers' ability to prolong the mandate of judges after they had reached their retirement age. It creates an opportunity for political pressure, as conditions for the prolongation are vague.

Timmermans said that despite several invitations to Polish ministers to settle the ongoing rule of law probe into Poland's judiciary, the ministers of the Law and Justice party (PiS) government have not met with him to discuss the concerns. Talks have instead only been in writing.

"I hope we can start a dialogue in person," Timmermans said.

The Commission issued its latest recommendations in July under the probe, and said the PiS government has violated Poland's constitution when reforming the Constitutional Tribunal.

Member states also weighed in on the rule of law in Poland in September , with none of the EU countries raising the possibility of sanctions under the Article 7 procedure.

Majority will vs rule of law

The PiS government in return accused Timmermans of political bias and double standards.

Jadwiga Wisniewska, an MEP from the ruling PiS party argued that her party has the majority in parliament.

"This is what democracy is about: the majority has the right to implement the programme with which it campaigned," she said.

Timmermans retorted by saying that a majority does not mean the government can violate the rule-of-law principle.

"An election victory does not give you right to violate the constitution, to violate laws," he said.

Timmermans added: "If we know anything about European history it is that the democracy argument was used to eliminate human rights, to make a mockery of rule of law. Democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, […] one cannot be used against the other."

"The whole idea that there is one lunatic in the Commission addressing Poland is completely beside reality," Timmermans added.

He warned that if the rule-of-law is threatened in one member state, then it is threatened in all EU countries.

"If we do not maintain the rule of law in Europe, then we will take leave of the most fundamental values of a European cooperation. And this will not just affect the member state Poland. It will affect all of us," he said.

Hungary and Poland defy EU authority

Hungary and Poland have said they "don't want a mixed population", amid a tug-of-war with the Commission on migrants and rule of law.

Article 7 not mentioned in Poland probe update

While Polish president Andrzej Duda proposes amendments to further increase political control over the judiciary, EU ministers voice support for the rule of law, but make no mention of the Article 7 sanctions.

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