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Thursday, July 27, 2017
EU says it will move to block Poland’s voting rights if it goes ahead with plans to let government fire supreme court judges
People protest against the reforms outside the supreme court in Warsaw on Tuesday. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters
Daniel Boffey in Brussels-Wednesday 26 July 2017
Poland’s ruling conservatives have hit back at EU threats to halt the country’s voting rights in the bloc if it pushes through controversial judicial reforms, saying they amount to “blackmail”.
The EU warned on Wednesday that it would immediately move to deploy its most serious sanction if Poland’s far-rightwing government gave itself the power to fire its supreme court judges.
Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European commission, acknowledged that Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, had this week stepped in to block two contentious reforms of the judiciary proposed by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).
The two laws would have forced the resignation of all supreme court justices and allowed their replacements to be selected by the justice minister, and would have would given government-appointed members of the National Council of the Judiciary – which selects judicial candidates – a power of veto.
Duda’s decision came after days of mass street protests around the country, an international outcry and Timmerman’s claim last Wednesday that the EU was on the brink of triggering the never-before-used “nuclear option” available to it in article 7 of the treaties, under which the Polish government could lose its voting rights in the bloc’s institutions.
While recognising that progress had been made, however, the commissioner claimed on Wednesday that Warsaw had not dropped its reform agenda, and reiterated that it was ready to act. “In this past week, some things have changed in Poland and some things have not,” he said.
“We extended our hand to the Polish authorities for dialogue immediately at redressing the situation and urged the Polish authorities to put the new laws on hold and reengage. That is not quite what has happened … The fact that two of the four laws have been signed, and that work will continue on the other two, means that we must set out clearly our concern.”
Frans Timmermans. Photograph: Stephanie Lecocq/EPA
He added: “The commission’s recommendation asks the Polish authorities not to take any measure to dismiss or force the retirement of supreme court judges. If such a measure is taken the commission is ready to immediately trigger the article 7 procedure.”
The government spokesman Rafał Bochenek told the Polish news agency PAP that the EU threat amounted to “blackmail”.
“We won’t accept blackmail on the part of EU officials, especially blackmail that is not based on facts. All the laws prepared by the Polish parliament are in compliance with the constitution and democratic rules,” he said.
“We regret that Timmermans, who is unfamiliar with the draft laws and Poland’s legal regulations, has formulated unfair criticism against Poland.”
The European commission said it intended to launch legal proceedings over two of the laws that were passed this week, when they are published. The two laws signed by Duda give the justice minister the power to select the heads of the local courts, and allows greater government control over the country’s school of judiciary.
The EU will argue that the Polish government’s failure to give its people effective access to justice, by undermining the independence of the courts, breaks EU law. It will also say that forcing early retirement of lower court judges is discriminatory towards women, as the age thresholds are different for the sexes under the new laws. Both legal arguments have been deployed by the European commission before in the case of Hungary, and forced the country to rethink.
Timmermans said the commission was giving the Polish authorities one month from the day the lower courts law takes effect to resolve conflicts in the country’s judicial shakeup. He said that the commission could even trigger article 7 over that law, if the government failed to engage.
Konrad Szymański, Poland’s deputy foreign minister in charge of European affairs, claimed that the EU’s doubts over the intentions of his government were unjustified.
“During its deliberations, the European commission should take into greater consideration the fact that the organisation of the judiciary is an area of competence belonging to member states, which make their own decisions on the matter through their political and legislative process,” Szymański told PAP.
“Poland will of course respond to the European commission’s specific remarks in due course,” he added.
There is some confidence within the Polish government that the commission does not have the necessary support among the member states to take the most drastic action against it.
Four-fifths of the member states need to approve a formal warning about a breach of the rule of law under article 7.1 of the treaties. It would require unanimity to suspend Poland’s voting rights and the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has vowed to protect Warsaw from such a move.