Commission refers Poland to top EU court over treatment of judiciary

A man holds the Polish constitution and EU flag during a protest organised by opponents of the judicial reform, in front of the Polish Senate headquarters in Warsaw on 25 July 2018. [EPA-EFE/Radek Pietruszka] POLAND OUT]

The European Commission referred Poland to the EU’s Court of Justice on Thursday (10 (October) in order to “protect judges from political control” enforced by Poland’s ruling conservative PiS party.

The latest conflict between Warsaw and Brussels concerns the new disciplinary regime for Polish judges, under which ordinary court judges can be subjected to disciplinary investigations, procedures and sanctions on the basis of the content of their rulings or decisions to request preliminary rulings from the Court of Justice of the EU.

The Commission believes this disciplinary regime undermines the judicial independence of local judges and does not ensure that they are protected from political control, the EU executive said in a statement.

It is the third infringement procedure related to the rule of law in the biggest eastern EU member since the PiS-led government launched an overhaul of the legal system in 2016.

The Commission launched the infringement procedure related to the matter in April and requested clarifications from Poland.

“Following a thorough analysis of the response received, the Commission concluded that the response did not alleviate the legal concerns, and took the next step in the process, sending a reasoned opinion on 17 July 2019. In its latest response, Poland again failed to address the Commission’s concerns.”

“The Commission has therefore decided to refer Poland to the Court of Justice of the EU.”

One previous infringement proceeding from July 2018 concerned the reform of Poland’s Supreme Court, whereby the government lowered the retirement age for judges.

In the other, from July 2017, the Commission launched the procedure because of the law on ordinary courts, on the grounds of its retirement provisions and their impact on the
independence of the judiciary.

On 5 November, the ECJ is set to announce a verdict on the law on the structure of common courts. In his opinion, the court’s advocate general Evgeni Tanchev had concluded that the changes in the retirement age of judges of 2017 were affecting judicial independence in the country.

The latest complaint comes only a few days ahead of the Polish parliamentary elections on Sunday (13 September), where the Law and Justice (PiS) government is sailing towards another landslide win, which is unlikely to be affected by the newest ruling.

Latest opinion polls see PiS at 44-45% approval over the opposition’s Koalicja Obywatelska (KO), which polls at 22.7%, followed by the Left with 13,8% approval.

According to Gazeta Wyborcza, the European Commission wants to attach to the complaint against Poland a request that the ECJ should consider accelerating the procedure.

During the preparatory meeting, however, according to Commission sources, the cabinet of Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger had protested against such a move, as the idea was not to start the initiative before the elections in Poland.

In the meantime, the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) has sent letters to the Commission and the Finnish presidency addressing the situation in the Polish judiciary, and to the Polish authorities about the treatment of the LGBT community in the country.

“According to media reports, the hate campaign began in the Polish Ministry of Justice and with the alleged help of several judges of the so-called good change, including a judge of the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court,” Spanish Socialists and Democrats (S&D) MEP Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar wrote in letter to the European Commission and the Finnish presidency.

The letter to the Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro and the minister for quality Adam Lipiński states that the LIBE committee is deeply concerned about “divisive and hateful rhetoric” towards LGBT communities in Poland, asking the Polish authorities to “ensure compliance with the principle of equal treatment regardless of sexual orientation.”

In response, deputy justice minister Marcin Romanowski complained that the letter was “interfering in the internal affairs of Poland” and “imposing the agenda of the homosexual lobby”, especially ahead of the elections.


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