Poland must undo its new disciplinary system for judges to unlock access to billions of euros of European Union aid aimed at helping revive economic growth, which has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the bloc’s chief executive said on Thursday (28 October).
Poland could get up to €57 billion in EU recovery funds, but the executive has been withholding its required approval for Warsaw’s detailed plan on how to spend it amid long and increasingly bitter feuds over democratic standards.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party had to undo its new disciplinary regime for judges, widely criticised for undercutting judicial independence.
“We want to put into that recovery and resilience plan a clear commitment to dismantle the disciplinary chamber, to end or reform the disciplinary regime and to start a process to reinstall the judges,” she said.
“I think it is doable, I hope that we will reach an agreement. But the reform part is conditio sine qua non,” she said, using the Latin term for an indispensable condition.
Poland has said it will alter the disciplinary regime as part of broader reforms, but it has not yet presented detailed plans.
“There will be some changes in disciplinary proceedings, but we will not act under the pressure or illegal blackmail which is the course of action created by the European Commission,” said Deputy Justice Minister Sebastian Kaleta.
Igor Tuleya, a Polish judge fiercely critical of the government’s reforms who was suspended from his post, said he thought attacks on the independent judiciary would continue.
“It can’t be ruled out that there could be some cosmetic changes… They could formally abolish the disciplinary chamber but in its place create something equally monstrous,” he told Reuters.
Separately, the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ), an organisation of EU bodies representing judges, voted on Thursday to expel Poland’s National Council of the Judiciary (KRS).
Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s nationalist PiS has introduced sweeping changes to the judiciary, putting judges under more government control in the EU’s largest ex-communist country and the biggest eastern market of 38 million people.
The KRS plays a key role in Poland’s judicial system as it reviews all nominations of judges. Under the government’s reforms, its members are now mostly appointed by the PiS-dominated parliament, whereas before they were chosen by judges.
The expulsion of the KRS from the EU group could intensify calls by government critics for decisive action and make it easier for those unhappy with the decisions of judges appointed under the new rules to challenge them.
However, Malgorzata Manowska, the First President of the Supreme Court, told private broadcaster TVN 24 the expulsion would only cause Poland “image” problems.
In addition to the feuds over the judiciary and rights, Poland has also clashed with most other countries in the EU on climate policies, growing increasingly isolated in the 27-nation bloc.
In September the EU’s top court – European Court of Justice – ordered daily fines on Poland worth €500,000 for refusing to heed its earlier ruling to shut down a polluting coal mine on the Czech border.
It fined Poland a further €1 million a day on Wednesday for keeping the disciplinary chamber at the Supreme Court running despite it having been previously dismissed by the Luxembourg-based tribunal as violating judicial independence, a key EU rule.