EU to check whether Polish bill on judges undermines court independence

File photo. The Constitutional Tribunal (TK) Chairman judge Andrzej Rzeplinski during the Constitutional Tribunal hearing in Warsaw, Poland, 8 March 2016. [Pawel Supernak/EPA/EFE]

The European Commission said on Monday (16 December) it would closely examine whether a new Polish draft law undermines the independence of the judiciary, amid tensions between Brussels and Warsaw over democratic standards.

The EU has accused Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party of politicizing the judiciary since it swept to power in 2015. PiS argues that the reforms are necessary to make Poland’s courts more efficient.

Under legislation PiS submitted to parliament on 12 December, judges could be sacked if they question the legitimacy of its judicial reforms. It also says judges must inform their superiors of past membership of political parties and of any activity in non-governmental organizations and on social media.

“The Commission continues to follow the situation in Poland closely,” a spokesman for the European Union’s executive, Christian Wigand, told a regular news briefing.

“The Commission will analyse the legislation proposed, in particular its compliance with EU law, regarding judicial independence,” he said.

PiS wants to prevent Polish judges from ruling that their peers, nominated by a panel appointed by PiS, are not independent and therefore that their rulings can be questioned.

With new judiciary appointments, Poland further escalates row with Brussels

The Polish Sejm began its new parliamentary term with a controversial approval of three new members of the Constitutional Tribunal, including two members of the ruling party, drawing criticism from the opposition and raising the stakes in the stand-off with Brussels.

Last month the EU’s top court, whose rulings under EU treaties trump national laws, said it was up to Poland’s Supreme Court to decide whether the PiS-appointed panel was independent. The Polish Supreme Court then ruled that it was not independent.

EU court puts legality of Polish court reform in doubt

Europe’s top court on Tuesday (19 November) ruled that Polish judges must decide on the validity of a disciplinary chamber imposed on them by the government, in a possible setback for Warsaw’s controversial judicial reforms.

The Polish parliament is due to discuss the draft legislation this week.

“The Commission has a very clear position on protecting the judiciary from political interference,” Wigand said.

“We have already referred Poland to the Court of Justice of the EU regarding its new disciplinary regime for judges in October,” he added.

The EU has launched a rule-of-law investigation that could in theory lead to Poland losing its EU voting rights.

Brussels is also considering whether to link access to EU budget funds – of which Poland is a big beneficiary – to the rule of law and democratic standards.

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