The European Commission warned that it could take further action against Poland over its commitment to the rule of law on Wednesday (18 May), unless Warsaw’s conservative government makes “significant” progress.
The Law and Justice (PiS) government plunged Poland into a political crisis in December, within weeks of winning power, when it pushed through legislation to overhaul the constitutional court and modify its decision-making rules.
In January, the European Commission launched an unprecedented probe to see if the changes – seen by critics as endangering the institution’s independence – violated EU democracy rules and merited punitive measures.
“If there is no significant progress by 23 May, then the First Vice-President (Frans Timmermans) has been empowered to adopt the draft rule of law opinion,” the European Commission said in a statement.
The exact contents of the so-called opinion is not known, but if Poland fails to address the issues raised, Warsaw could eventually face a suspension of its voting rights in the European council of ministers, the EU’s most important decision-making body.
Warsaw downplayed the move, insisting Brussels had “not issued an ultimatum”.
“The European Commission will issue an opinion (by Monday), but we know it already” from ongoing consultations, Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski told reporters in Warsaw.
Despite the palpable cooling of ties between Warsaw and Brussels in recent months, Szymanski said relations were “friendly” and “satisfactory”.
Since taking office in November 2015, Poland’s conservatives have pushed through several pieces of controversial legislation, including strengthening state controls over public broadcasters and now seeking to tighten already limited access to abortions.
Earlier this month, around a quarter of a million Poles marched to defend their country’s place in the European Union and protest against the right-wing government.
Since 2009, when the Lisbon Treaty entered into force, the European Commission has been confronted on several occasions with crisis events in some member states, which revealed specific rule of law problems.
Such 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 made, 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 been used, the previous Commission, under José Manuel Barroso, introduced a "pre-Article 7 procedure", which follows three stages. Those are:
- Commission assessment: As a first step, the European 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 European 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 executive then makes its recommendation public.
- Follow-up to the Commission Recommendation: In a third stage, the European 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 against a member state only once. 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.
- European Commission: College discusses a draft Rule of Law Opinion on the situation in Poland