EU takes Poland to court over law ‘undermining’ judges

Didier Reynders, European Commissioner for Justice, delivers a statement on the decision by European Commission to refer Poland to the Court of Justice of the European Union regarding the law on the judiciary of 20 December 2019, which entered into force on 14 February 2020. [EC - Audiovisual Service/Lukasz Kobus]

The European Commission said on Wednesday (31 March) it is taking Poland to the European Court of Justice over a reform it says undermines the country’s judicial independence. Poland brushed it off, saying it had “no legal or factual justification”.

Brussels is also asking the court to make an interim order suspending the 2019 Polish law until a final judgment is delivered.

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders told a news conference that “the Commission believes the law infringes upon the independence of the judiciary in Poland and is incompatible with the primacy of the law of the union”.

A spokesman for the Polish government, Piotr Muller, tweeted in response that the Commission move “has no legal or factual justification” and argued that judiciary matters are “an exclusively national domain”.

The Commission’s decision is part of a campaign by the EU executive to bring Poland, as well as its ally Hungary, back into line with what it considers European democratic norms.

EU court tells Polish judges to ignore national laws breaking bloc law

Judges applying to join Poland’s Supreme Court should have the right to appeal against the opinions of a body which reviews candidates, the EU’s top court said on Tuesday (2 March), underlining a rift over the rule of law between Warsaw and Brussels.

It accuses the two populist governments of stifling independent media and imposing reforms that in effect exclude judges whose rulings may not align with the views held by the ruling parties.

The Polish law on reforming the judiciary, which came into force in February last year, prevents judges from referring questions of law to the European Court of Justice and creates a body that rules on judges’ independence without regard to EU law.

It also set up a “disciplinary chamber” to oversee Polish supreme court judges, with the power to lift their immunity to expose them to criminal proceedings or cut their salaries.

“The Commission considers that this seriously undermines judicial independence and the obligation to ensure effective legal protection, and thus the EU legal order as a whole,” the EU executive said in a statement.

It said it would call on the European Court of Justice to suspend the 2019 judicial reform law as well as the disciplinary chamber and the decisions it has made in terms of judges’ immunity.

Long-running battle

The European Commission, responsible under EU treaties for “guaranteeing the rule of law”, started its infringement process against Poland in 2017 — before the current law had passed. The issue has escalated through legal channels since then.

The looming European Court of Justice case is the long-anticipated climax of that.

Other EU countries and the European Parliament have sought to link EU coronavirus relief money to member states abiding by rule of law principles.

But Poland and Hungary made a pact giving mutual protection from such a measure. The two countries want the EU court to rule on the legality of that conditionality mechanism.

Hungary, Poland refer controversial rule of law mechanism to court

Hungary and Poland have launched legal action at the European Court of Justice (EJC) against the regulation tying the disbursement of bloc funds to the rule of law situation in EU countries, the court said on Thursday (11 March).

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has argued that his country is standing up to an “oligarchy” of stronger EU member states, and that the issue at stake is Polish “sovereignty”.

The leaders of the main political groupings in the European Parliament last week sent a letter to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen saying that, regarding Poland, “one of the fundamental values of the European Union is at stake: the Rule of Law”.

They warned that, if not countered, the demolition of that value “may eventually end in the collapse of the Union”.

Commission may face trouble over rule of law conditionality guidelines

The European Commission faces a tight deadline to present its rule of law guidelines following the European Parliament’s move to hurry along the application of the regulation that ties the disbursement of bloc funds to the rule of law situation in EU countries.

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