MEPs passed a non-binding resolution on Wednesday (13 April), calling on the Polish authorities to restore the ability of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal to uphold its Constitution and guarantee respect for the rule of law.
The vote comes against the background of the unprecedented decision by the European Commission to start a potentially-punitive process aimed at buttressing democracy and rights in the 28 EU states.
The resolution, passed by 513 votes to 142 with 30 abstentions, wraps up a plenary debate held in January after the European Commission decided to start an inquiry under the Rule of Law framework into reforms of the Polish Constitutional Court.
MEPs say that actions taken by the Polish government, led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and the President of the Republic of Poland, have led to the effective paralysis of the Constitutional Tribunal which poses a danger to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. They urge the Polish authorities to publish and implement without further delay the rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal in line with the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.
The European Parliament supports the European Commission’s efforts to find a way out of the current situation through a dialogue with Poland’s authorities. However, if the Polish government fails to comply with the recommendations, MEPs want the European Commission to activate the second stage of the procedure under the “framework for addressing systemic threats to the rule of law”, initiated on 13 January.
MEPs stress that all steps taken with regard to Poland must respect the subsidiarity principle but also reiterate that the values and principles enshrined in EU treaties and international human rights instruments must be upheld by the EU, and by each individual member state, in all their policies.
First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, was optimistic after a series of meetings with the Polish government held last week. Yet Poland will continue to be monitored under the Rule of Law Framework.
S&D Group president Gianni Pittella, stated :
"The European Parliament has approved the resolution on Poland by an overwhelming majority. This clearly shows that the deep concerns around the recent controversial laws adopted by the Polish government are widely shared and that there is a strong political will by the European Parliament to see Poland complying with European values and principles.
"We sincerely want to keep a constructive dialogue with Warsaw. However, we cannot close our eyes and cover our ears in front of a series of other worrying retrogressive measures, such as the possible criminalisation of abortion, media law, or the amended act on police and secret services, against which the Socialists and Democrats will continue to fight.
"The position of the European Parliament is indeed clear. The Venice Commission has already spoken out loud over the unconstitutional nature of the laws over media and Constitutional Court. Now it is high time for the Polish government to comply with these recommendations. Poland was not obliged to become an EU member state but once a country becomes a member, they must strictly adhere to EU principles and values; no exceptions allowed."
Guy Verhofstadt, ALDE Group leader, said:
"This parliament has spoken loudly and clearly: respect for European values is not a choice but an obligation. The constitutional crisis in Poland endangers democracy and rule of law as proved by the Venice Commission. Today's message of unity shows this house will not remain impassive in the face of violations of European principles, values and legislation".
"This constitutional paralysis can lead to a crisis of unprecedented dimensions. The ability of the Constitutional Tribunal to ensure compliance of Polish legislation with fundamental rights and with EU law is vital for Poland's place in the Euro-Atlantic community of values".
"Poland's constitutional crisis is creating two parallel legal systems, which will lead to a great legal uncertainty. The PiS government is distancing Poland from a community of shared values".
"The PiS government has to urgently respect, publish and fully implement the Constitutional Tribunal's judgement, as well as the recommendations of the Venice Commission".
"The European Commission needs to continue the dialogue with the Polish government and take appropriate measures, if the PiS executive fails to comply with the Venice Commission recommendations".
"It is high time the PiS Prime Minister comes to her senses and stops trying to isolate Poland," Verhofstadt said with respect to Prime Minister Beata Szydło.
MEP Viviane Reding (EPP, Luxembourg), former Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship from 2010 to 2014, who created the Rule of Law Framework, highlighted the importance of the resolution: “Last January, I warned against the reforms of the Polish government aimed among others at dismantling the independent judiciary. Three months later, I remain just as worried. The attacks against the Constitutional Tribunal, media-freedom and women's rights, are steps in the wrong direction."
“The Polish government must take into account both the recommendations of its own Supreme Court and the advice from the Venice Commission they requested themselves! Both the external and internal pressure is mounting. The Polish people are taking to the streets by the thousands. The European institutions must now keep up the pressure and send a strong message of support. Let there be no mistake: if Europe allows its fundamental values to be trodden with impunity by some of its own Member
States, this would send a dangerously wrong message that would be pickedup far beyond our borders, undermining our credibility and the indispensable respect for our common values. I will remain vigilant that this does not happen.”
Since 2009 the Lisbon Treaty entered into force in 2009, the European Commission has been confronted on several occasions with crisis events in some member states, which revealed specific rule of law problems.
Examples include the handling of the Roma issue by the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, attempts to impose one-party rule in Hungary, and an attempted crackdown on the judiciary in Romania.
Under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, serious breaches to the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights by a member state can result in a suspension or loss of voting rights in the EU Council of Ministers.
If article 7 is activated, this would mean that the country in breach would temporarily lose its EU membership rights. But before such a decision can be taken, the Council shall hear the member state in question and may address recommendations.
But as Article 7 is described as a ‘nuclear bomb’ which may never be used, the previous EU Commission under José Manuel Barroso introduced a "pre-Article 7 procedure", which follows three stages. Those are:
- Commission assessment: As a first step, the Commission collects and examines all the relevant information and assesses whether there are clear indications of a systemic threat to the rule of law. If the Commission makes such assessment, it will initiate a dialogue with the country concerned, by sending its "rule of law opinion". The country concerned then has the possibility to respond.
- Commission Recommendation: In a second stage, unless the matter has already been resolved, the Commission issues a "rule of law recommendation" to the country concerned. It recommends that the member state solves the problems identified within a fixed time limit and informs the Commission of the steps taken to that effect. The Commission then makes its recommendation public.
- Follow-up to the Commission Recommendation: In a third stage, the Commission monitors the follow-up given by the member state to the recommendation. If there is no satisfactory follow-up within the time limit set, the Commission can resort to one of the mechanisms set out in Article 7 of the EU treaty.
Before the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, the EU imposed sanctions only once against a member state. In 2000, 14 countries of the then 15 member EU reacted to the entrance of Jörg Haider's far-right Austrian Freedom Party into the Austrian government by freezing bilateral relations with the country.