Monday

21st May 2018

Commission urges Poland to settle dispute by late June

The European Commission wants Poland to do more by the end of June to tackle concerns over political control of the judiciary, the EU executive's vice-president said on Monday (14 May).

Frans Timmermans told reporters after briefing EU affairs ministers that "some progress has been made over the last couple of weeks, but not enough to say that the systematic threat to the rule of law would be removed."

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He added that the EU affairs ministers' next meeting on 26 June is the new deadline for Poland to act.

Timmermans said "tangible and robust" solutions are needed in the next couple of weeks. "Dialogue is not a goal in itself," he added.

Timmermans also warned the entire spectrum of measures are still possible, depending on what Poland's government decides to do.

The commission could stop the 'Article 7' sanctions procedure if the concerns are properly addressed, or the probe could be stepped up with an official presentation of the positions of the commission and Poland in front of the council at the June meeting.

Timmermans said there has been progress with the removal of different retirement ages for male and female judges, and the improvement of the situation of junior judges.

"But the main issue remains how much political control can you have, to be able to say that the judiciary is independent. We have some concerns there," the Dutch politician told reporters.

"The Polish government and the commission agree that you cannot continue endlessly with this dialogue, we will have to draw a conclusion and and that conclusion will have to be drawn pretty soon," he added.

A key issue is the overhaul of courts that gives the Law and Justice party (PiS) controlled parliament power over the selection of judges and ends the term of some Supreme Court justices early, forcing judges to retire.

The government has also set up a new "extraordinary appeal" chamber in the Supreme Court, which could re-open cases from the last 20 years.

The Polish government agreed to these adjustments in reply to the commission's objections, but the changes Warsaw plans are cosmetic, critics say.

The latest amendments – limiting its ability to overturn past verdicts, and the president appointing junior judges instead of the justice minister – are expected to be passed by the Polish parliament's upper house later this week.

They will have to be signed by Poland's president to come into force.

Poland argues the measures should be enough.

"Poland and the commission differ in their evaluations of the reforms," Poland's EU affairs minister Konrad Szymanski told reporters after the meeting.

"I hope this is just a matter of time and that we will be able to explain doubts regarding the latest amendments to the Polish reforms of the judiciary. In our view, the steps taken by the Polish parliament are very far-reaching," he added.

Toothless

The commission launched the so-called Article 7 procedure against Warsaw last December after the nationalist Polish government passed legislation that critics say put the independence of the courts at risk.

The commission has, over two years, produced several recommendations to Poland on how to amend the controversial laws, and Warsaw then came forward with a detailed explanation of its legislation this March.

The procedure, for now, is stuck in the council of member states, where countries are reluctant to sanction one another. Hungary has already said it would veto any measures against Poland.

Therefore the commission's procedures on rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are mostly toothless.

The commission has before settled for political compromise, in a similar case with Hungary on rule of law concerns there after it launched a probe against Budapest in 2012.

However, several big member states want to see more progress now.

Germany and France again presented a united front on the issue in the council, this time with French EU affairs minister Nathalie Loiseau telling her colleagues that the two countries want to see "tangible results".

She urged Warsaw to swiftly adopt measures that fully address the commission's concerns.

Poland's premier Mateusz Morawiecki is due to give a speech in mid-July on the future of Europe in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in which he may address the concerns.

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