EU defied as Warsaw politicises judiciary
POLAND: Poland triggered a showdown between eastern and western Europe yesterday when its MPs voted to give parliament the power to appoint supreme court judges, despite the threat of sanctions from Brussels.
The European Commission had warned that the legislation would undermine the separation of judicial and political powers, seen as a cornerstone of democracy and the rule of law.
On Thursday it gave Poland a week to rethink the plans and to avoid sanctions: the suspension of its full EU membership by the withdrawal of its voting rights, a measure that has never been used against a member state.
This enraged the Polish government, which yesterday won the backing of Hungary to resist European officials. Tensions have been running high in some of the former communist nations, which are resisting the EU’s insistence that every member state must take a share of refugees.
The latest dispute began when Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party rushed through a bill proposed only last week to give the justice minister the power to appoint judges to the supreme court. Further powers for the minister to organise the work of the court and decide which judges should remain were switched to the president under an amendment designed to make it more palatable to Brussels.
The bill quickly followed one that was approved last week, giving parliament control over the National Council of the Judiciary.
‘‘Collectively, they would abolish any remaining judicial independence and put the judiciary under full political control of the government,’’ Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the commission, said, adding that the changes would ‘‘considerably increase the systemic threat to the rule of law’’.
Polish MPs voted by 235 to 192, with 23 abstentions, to pass the bill and send it to the upper house today, where it is certain to pass thanks to the Law and Justice Party’s majority there.
The final step to becoming law will be the signature of President Andrzej Duda, a lawyer who used to be a Law and Justice MP, but who ran as an independent for the presidency in 2015. Crowds gathered in Warsaw and Wroclaw yesterday calling for him to veto the bill.
Donald Tusk, the former prime minister of Poland who is now president of the European Council, called for a solution to a ‘‘very serious situation’’. He has proposed a meeting with Duda to try to avoid ‘‘bleak outcomes which could ultimately lead to the marginalisation of Poland in Europe’’.
He added: ‘‘They transport us, in the political sense, in time and in space backwards and eastwards and ruin an already tarnished public opinion of Polish democracy.’’
Duda’s office said the president had rejected the offer of a meeting with Tusk.
During yesterday’s debate, Adam Bodnar, Poland’s human rights ombudsman, told parliament that the legislation would ‘‘deprive citizens of the right to an independent court’’, adding: ‘‘We are planting an explosive under our judiciary.’’
Law and Justice said it wanted to shake up the top court because it had become a ‘‘state within a state’’ and lacked accountability. It was heavily criticised for making political appointments to the constitutional court in 2015, but escaped EU censure.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chairman of the party, said that ‘‘farreaching, radical actions’’ were
"This is very dangerous for the political system we are living in."
required because the judiciary had not been reformed since communist times and was inefficient.
Opposition politicians, judges and European officials criticised the vote.
Grzegorz Schetyna, head of Civic Platform, the main opposition party, denounced the bill as an ‘‘announcement of a coup’’.
Malgorzata Gersdorf, president of the supreme court, said the bill would transform it into a ‘‘court attached to the justice ministry’’.
She added: ‘‘This is very dangerous for the political system we are living in.’’
Krystian Markiewicz, president of Iustitia, the Polish judges’ association, also described the proposed change to the law as a ‘‘coup’’.
‘‘The rule of law and democracy are ending, the independence of powers is over,’’ Markiewicz said. ‘‘The minister will appoint the judges that he favours.’’
He added that the measure was introduced ‘‘at night, completely out of the blue, with no social consultation’’ and ‘‘does not fit into EU standards’’. – The Times