European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans announced with a 04:13am tweet that the EU executive had activated Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty against Poland, due to “a risk of serious breach of of the rule of law”.
The procedure – if supported by other EU member states voting unanimously – sets off a lengthy process that could lead to the suspension of the country’s EU voting rights in the Council of Ministers.
Timmermans said the decision was made with “a heavy heart”, and hoped “ that we can enter into a more fruitful dialogue”.
The Commission also gave its fourth set of recommendation to Poland on remedial measures that the country could adopt to stop the punitive process.
It is with a heavy heart that we have activated Article 7(1). But the facts leave us with no choice. We have no other option. This is not just about Poland, it is about the EU as a whole. We continue to hope that we can enter into a more fruitful dialogue.
— Frans Timmermans (@TimmermansEU) December 20, 2017
The EU executive motivated its decision by saying “there is a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland.”
“Over a period of two years, the Polish authorities have adopted more than 13 laws affecting the entire structure of the justice system in Poland, impacting the Constitutional Tribunal, Supreme Court, ordinary courts, National Council for the Judiciary, prosecution service and National School of Judiciary.
“The common pattern is that the executive and legislative branches have been systematically enabled to politically interfere in the composition, powers, administration and functioning of the judicial branch,” the Commission said.
How it works
Article 7, often referred to as the “nuclear option” in Brussels, provides a mechanism to safeguard fundamental EU values when they are considered under threat. These include the “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.”
If the procedure is concluded, the main effect of Article 7 is to suspend voting rights of the targeted country in the Council of the EU.
But it has thus far never been used, partly because the process is far from straightforward. Here’s how it works:
- Article 7 can be triggered by one third of member states, by the European Parliament or by the Commission, each according to their own rules of procedure.
- The European Parliament then has to give its consent, which requires a two-thirds majority of the votes cast and an absolute majority of MEPs.
- The Council of the EU representing the 28 member states, then has to approve the launch of the procedure, with a four-fifths majority vote aimed at recognising the risk of a breach of EU values.
- The next phase is Article 7(2), by which an actual breach of EU values can be determined by the Council on a proposal by a third of Member States or the Commission.
- The Council then needs to vote by unanimity on Article 7(3), which launches sanctions, such as the suspension of voting rights in the Council.
- The Parliament closes the procedure by giving its consent (two-thirds majority, absolute majority of MEPs).
What happens next
Poland will now have three months to adopt the Commission’s recommendations, including to amend or withdraw most of the controversial reforms of the judiciary, and to “refrain from actions and public statements which could further undermine the legitimacy of the judiciary.”
However responding to the Commission’s announcement, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tweeted: “Poland is attached to the rule of law as much as the EU. The reform of the justice system is necessary in Poland. We need openness and integrity in the dialogue between Warsaw and the Commission.”
“I believe that the subjectivity of Poland can be reconciled with the idea of a United Europe,” Morawiecki said, signalling the new prime minister is likely to go ahead with the reforms.
Polska jest przywiązana do zasady praworządności tak samo jak UE. Reforma wymiaru sprawiedliwości jest w Polsce konieczna. W dialogu między Warszawą, a Komisją potrzebujemy otwartości i uczciwości. Wierzę w to, że podmiotowość Polski da się pogodzić z ideą Zjednoczonej Europy.
— Mateusz Morawiecki (@MorawieckiM) December 20, 2017
The Polish Foreign ministry issued a statement (see below in full) saying: “We want to continue to reform our justice system – we owe it to our voters, these are social expectations. We are open to the social and political debate on this important reform, and we expect from our European partners a comprehensive, objective assessment and a better understanding”.
Speaking to EURACTIV.com on behalf of Poland’s permanent representation to the EU, Martyna Bildziukiewicz said “it is too early to know” what will happen in the Council, which could be convened on March 20th – exactly three months from now.
It is early to say which countries will support Poland in the council, although Hungary has already said it will veto the procedure. Other allies include the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which are part of the Visegrad Group, making sanctions unlikely.
In May, MEPs voted in favour of triggering Article 7 against Hungary, citing “serious deterioration of rule of law and democracy”, and asking for putting Hungary’s EU funds under surveillance.