The EU on Wednesday warned Poland’s right-wing government to suspend controversial court reforms or risk unprecedented sanctions.
Sharply escalating a standoff with Warsaw, First Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans said Brussels could launch disciplinary action next week.
He also threatened to move toward halting Poland’s voting rights in the 28-nation bloc further down the line — a so-called “nuclear option” that the EU has never invoked.
Thousands of protesters have rallied in Polish cities over the reforms by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) that would give parliament powers over the selection of judges.
“These laws considerably increase the systemic threat to the rule of law in Poland,” Timmermans said after a high-level meeting in Brussels.
“Collectively, they would abolish any remaining judicial independence and put the judiciary under full political control of the government,” he said.
In Warsaw, the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement lashing the EU’s response as “unfounded and unjustified,” as well as “premature” given that the legislative process was still under way.
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said judicial reform was purely an affair of the Polish state.
“The issues that we are dealing with are the exclusive competence of the state,” he said on the public news channel TVP Info, referring to Timmermans’ statement as “an abuse, an act of a political nature.”
The clash underscores a growing rift between Brussels and eastern member states where populist and increasingly authoritarian governments are pushing for greater sovereignty, particularly over migration.
The EU first warned Poland early last year over reforms of the constitutional court by the PiS after it won elections the previous year.
The European Commission said in a statement that it “urges the Polish authorities to put the new laws on hold” and that it would “swiftly prepare infringement procedures for breach of EU law” against Warsaw to be discussed next week.
EU states can be taken to the bloc’s highest court and eventually given stiff fines for such breaches.
Timmermans added that “we are very close to triggering Article 7” — the bloc’s never-before used “nuclear option” that can halt a country’s right to vote in EU meetings.
However, Poland is likely to escape such a measure as it would be vetoed by its ally Hungary.
Timmermans also spoke out against the intimidation of reporters who have been critical of the Polish government, adding: “In darkness, democracy dies”.
Rights group Amnesty International said the EU’s Article 7 threat was a “positive step.”
The latest of the Polish reforms — a draft law giving the justice minister power to make appointments to the Supreme Court — triggered angry exchanges in the Polish parliament late on Tuesday.
Kaczynski said opponents of the plan “murdered” his brother, then-Polish president Lech Kaczynski, who was killed in a plane crash in Russia in 2010.
On Sunday, thousands rallied in Warsaw and other cities against reforms endorsed last week by parliament and more protests took place on Tuesday in Warsaw.
The first of those laws stipulates that from now on the parliament will choose the members of the National Council of the Judiciary, which oversees the selection of judges and is meant to protect the independence of the courts. The second bill states that the justice minister will name the chief justices of common courts.
Both texts need only to be signed by Polish President Andrzej Duda, who is closely allied with the PiS, to become law.
However, Duda, in a surprise move on Tuesday, said he would not approve the Supreme Court reform unless lawmakers amended the bill on the judiciary council to ensure the PiS would not have complete control over its composition.
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