European commission tells member states that Polish government has put fundamental democratic values at risk
The Polish government has accused the European commission of a politically motivated attack after it triggered a process that could see the country stripped of voting rights in Brussels, over legal changes that the bloc claims threaten the independence of the countrys judiciary.
In a highly symbolic moment, Polands fellow 27 member states were advised by the commission on Wednesday that the legislative programme of Polands government was putting at risk fundamental values expected of a democratic state by allowing political interference in its courts.
Within a period of two years a significant number of laws have been adopted 13 in total which put in serious risk the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers, the vice-president of the commission, Frans Timmermans, told reporters in Brussels. Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the countrys judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority. In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law.
Timmermans, a former Dutch diplomat, added: We are doing this for Poland, for Polish citizens.
Polands new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, responded on Twitter: Poland is as devoted to the rule of law as the rest of the EU. The Polish foreign ministry said in a statement: Poland deplores the European commissions launch of the procedure […] which is essentially political, not legal.
Hours later the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, gave a televised address to announce he had signed into law the two bills overhauling the judiciary.
The row represents the greatest crisis in the EU since Britains decision to leave the EU last year, with the Polish government showing little inclination to back down.
The issuing of a formal warning to Poland has been recommended to the member states under the first clause of an, until now, unused article 7 procedure, which is regarded as a nuclear option in EU affairs. It is with a heavy heart that we have decided to initiate Article 7.1, Timmermans said. But the facts leave us with no choice.
At least 22 of the 28 member states will now need to vote in favour of the commissions proposal for a formal warning, but Brussels is confident it has the numbers it needs.
The most serious sanction possible under article 7 would be to suspend the member state of its voting rights in EU institutions, and potentially EU financial transfers to the blocs largest beneficiary, but it would require unanimity among the member states in a subsequent vote. Hungarys rightwing government has insisted it would never support such a move.
In response to the decision, Zsolt Semjn, Hungarys deputy prime minister, immediately described the move as unprecedented and astounding and reiterated the declared intention of the prime minister, Viktor Orbn, to block any sanctions.
The decision seriously damages Polands sovereignty, Semjn said. It is unacceptable that Brussels is putting pressure on sovereign member states and arbitrarily punishing democratically elected governments.
Timmermans said that although there has been no dialogue with the Polish government this year on the issue, the EU was open to talks on the current standoff.
Morawiecki took office this month and Warsaw was advised that the commission could rescind its decision if remedies were enacted within the next three months.
It was always clear, however, that the commissions decision would exacerbate a growing sense of crisis over Polands membership of the EU.
Speaking to state television earlier on Wednesday, the foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said that any decision to initiate article 7 proceedings would constitute an attempt to stigmatise Poland and push us aside when key decisions are made in the EU.
State television news, controlled by the ruling Law and Justice party since the passage of a controversial media law in 2016, accompanied its coverage of the announcement with the headline Frans Timmermans wants to take away Poles right to reform their own country.
Polands image and influence in the EU has already suffered under the policy of the PiS government, so the international consequences of the commissions move will be limited, but the domestic fallout will be more important, said Piotr Buras, director of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
State propaganda is likely to portray this decision as an hostile act of foreign oppressors directed against Polands democracy and sovereignty. It will fuel the narrative about Poland as a besieged fortress, and about the west betraying Poland.
The Polish government insists the judiciary retains too much of the institutional architecture that was in place during Polands time as a communist state and that it needs to be placed in a new legal framework.
The development will prove highly awkward for Theresa May, who will be in Warsaw for a UK-Poland summit on Thursday, at which she hopes to push forward her vision of a post-Brexit trading relationship with the rest of Europe.
The UK government has been ambiguous over its position, due to concerns that Brussels should not be meddling in domestic affairs.
While it is a keen advocate of independent judicial systems, the British government also wants to build alliances as it attempts to win support for Mays pursuit of a deep and special trade deal with the EU.
A spokesman for the prime minister said she would raise her concerns over the rule of law when in Warsaw, but that the UK hoped the issue could be swiftly resolved.
The row over the Polish governments reforms to the countrys judiciary has been rolling on for two years but appears to have come to a head in the wake of the Polish senates decision last Friday to approve legislation giving the executive greater control of the supreme court and national council of the judiciary, which appoints judges.
Under the new laws the supreme court will be able to conduct extraordinary reviews of final judgments by lower courts, including those issued over the last 20 years.
The European council president, Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, and a party political rival to the Law and Justice party, urged Warsaw to come to its senses.
I sincerely hope that the Polish government will not seek a conflict at all cost in a case where it is simply not right, Tusk said in Krakow, southern Poland.