EU could halt Poland’s vot­ing rights over court re­forms

Muscat Daily - - BREAK -

Brux­elles, Bel­gium - The Euro­pean Union (EU) warned Poland on Wed­nes­day it would sus­pend its vot­ing rights if it pushes ahead with con­tro­ver­sial court re­forms, spark­ing a fu­ri­ous re­ac­tion from War­saw.

Poland’s right-wing gov­ern­ment ac­cused Brus­sels of ‘black­mail’ af­ter the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion sig­nif­i­cantly raised the stakes in the con­fronta­tion.

Pres­i­dent An­drzej Duda’s un­ex­pected ve­to­ing of two con­tro­ver­sial re­forms, in­clud­ing one tar­get­ing the Supreme Court, had not ended the risk to the in­de­pen­dence of the Pol­ish ju­di­ciary, Brus­sels said.

“In this past week some things have changed in Poland - and some things have not,” Euro­pean Com­mis­sion Vice Pres­i­dent Frans Tim­mer­mans told a news con­fer­ence af­ter a fresh high­level meet­ing on the cri­sis.

With the rul­ing Law and Jus­tice (PiS) party vow­ing to push ahead with the re­forms, Tim­mer­mans warned in par­tic­u­lar against the mass sack­ing of Supreme Court judges.

“If such a mea­sure is taken the com­mis­sion is ready to im­me­di­ately trig­ger the Ar­ti­cle 7 pro­ce­dure,” Tim­mer­mans said.

Ar­ti­cle 7 is a never-be­foreused EU process de­signed to up- hold the rule of law, a so-called ‘nu­clear op­tion’ that can freeze a coun­try’s right to vote in meet­ings of EU min­is­ters.

‘We won’t ac­cept black­mail’

The le­gal re­forms have trig­gered mass street protests in Poland and raised fears for the rule of law in one of the EU’s lead­ing east­ern for­mer com­mu­nist states.

Brus­sels and War­saw have been at log­ger­heads over the le­gal changes ever since the right-wing Law and Jus­tice (PiS) party took power in 2015 and an­nounced re­forms to Poland’s con­sti­tu­tional court. The lat­est threats in­fu­ri­ated War­saw.

“We won’t ac­cept black­mail on the part of EU of­fi­cials, espe­cially black­mail that is not based on facts,” Pol­ish gov­ern­ment spokesman Rafal Boch­enek told the PAP news agency.

“All the laws pre­pared by the Pol­ish par­lia­ment are in com­pli­ance with the con­sti­tu­tion and demo­cratic rules.”

This month the gov­ern­ment pushed through a bill that would have re­in­forced po­lit­i­cal con­trol over the Supreme Court and an­other al­low­ing par­lia­ment to choose mem­bers of a body de­signed to pro­tect the in­de­pen­dence of the courts.

Duda ve­toed those two while sign­ing into law an­other mea­sure that al­lows the jus­tice min­is­ter to uni­lat­er­ally re­place the chief jus­tices of the com­mon courts.

Prime Min­is­ter Beata Szydlo has in­sisted that PiS will press ahead with the oth­ers. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion said it will launch sep­a­rate le­gal ac­tion against Poland over the re­form tar­get­ing the com­mon courts. That could lead to Poland be­ing hauled be­fore the bloc’s high­est court and even­tu­ally given a fine.

Hun­gary veto threat

The Poland cri­sis threat­ens to deepen an east-west split in the EU, with fears that au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments in east­ern states are un­der­min­ing the 28-na­tion bloc’s fun­da­men­tal demo­cratic prin­ci­ples.

While the EU’s an­nounce­ment on Wed­nes­day marks a fur­ther rais­ing of the stakes in its con­fronta­tion with Poland, the chances are slim that its vot­ing rights could ac­tu­ally be sus­pended.

Pop­ulist Hun­gar­ian Prime Min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­ban has vowed he would in­stantly veto any such move by the EU.

Hun­gary it­self faces EU le­gal ac­tion over laws tar­get­ing ed­u­ca­tion and for­eign civil so­ci­ety groups, while Poland, Hun­gary and the Czech Repub­lic also face ac­tion for ig­nor­ing the bloc’s mi­grant re­lo­ca­tion quo­tas.

The EU brought in Ar­ti­cle 7 in re­sponse to fears about the rule of law in the wave of east­ern states like Poland join­ing af­ter 2004, although it was mainly in­tended as a back­stop or threat that had lit­tle chance of be­ing used.

EU Jus­tice Com­mis­sioner Vera Jourova said on Tues­day that the Pol­ish cri­sis had caused a ‘very high level of ner­vos­ity’ about whether it would ‘af­fect the whole EU sys­tem of mu­tual recog­ni­tion of court de­ci­sions’.

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