EU could halt Poland’s voting rights over court reforms
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’.