In a major escalation against one of the EU’s biggest states, Brussels triggered article seven of the EU treaty over what it sees as “systemic threats” to the independence of the Polish judiciary from the nation’s right-wing government.
Never before used against an EU member state, the proceedings can eventually lead to the “nuclear option” of the suspension of a country’s voting rights within the bloc.
But just hours after the announcement, a defiant Polish president went ahead and signed the reforms into law.
“It is with a heavy heart that we have decided to initiate Article 7.1. But the facts leave us with no choice,” Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told reporters.
The Dutch commissioner said 13 laws adopted by Poland in the space of two years had created a situation where the government “can systematically politically interfere with the composition, powers, the administration and the functioning” of judicial authorities.
But Timmermans gave Warsaw three months to remedy the situation, saying Brussels could withdraw the measures if it did.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said on Twitter it was “a difficult day for Poland, but also for the EU” and said he would meet Poland’s new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki early next month.
EU President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and arch-rival of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, urged Warsaw to “come to its senses” and “not seek a conflict at all cost in a case where it is simply not right”.
Poland slams ‘political’ move
Poland’s right-wing PiS government began making changes to the judiciary after coming to power in late 2015 and says the reforms are needed to combat corruption.
Brussels has repeatedly warned that it views the changes as a threat to the democratic principles and rule of law Poland signed up to when it joined the EU.
“Poland deplores the European Commission’s launch of the procedure foreseen in article seven, which is essentially political, not legal” in nature, the Polish foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that it risks undermining “mutual trust”.
President Andrzej Duda later said he had decided to sign into law reforms to the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary pushed through parliament this month by the PiS government.
Duda defended the constitutionality of his moves insisting that in the “US the president chooses Supreme Court judges, while the Senate gives its opinion; judges’ circles have no say in the matter”.
He also insisted that the new laws “absolutely serve the democratisation of the state”.
The initial phase set in motion by the commission, the EU executive arm, allows member states to “determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach” of the rule of law.
Such a ruling would need the backing of 22 states out of 28.
Any possible sanctions would only come at a second stage and would need unanimous support of all EU members -- apart from Poland.
Hungary has already said it would veto such a move, making sanctions unlikely, but Brussels is hoping the start of proceedings will have significant symbolic power.
Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen called Wednesday’s move a “grave attack on Polish sovereignty” and vowed that Budapest would oppose it “in all forums”, in comments to the state news agency MTI.
Protests in Poland
Poland’s parliament last week adopted new reforms allowing it to choose members of a body designed to protect judicial independence and reinforce political control over the Supreme Court.
The reforms have sparked street protests in Poland and concern from the US.
Warsaw and the EU have clashed over the reforms for more than a year with little result, with Poland refusing to implement the “recommendations” from Brussels.
The commission has been threatening to trigger article seven for months, but given that the threat of sanctions is no more than theoretical, the EU is trying to come up with other ways of getting Poland to comply.
One idea is to link access to European funding for major infrastructure projects to respect for EU values and rulings, with the EU due to start talks on its next multi-year budget in April. VNS