Poland dismissed on Monday (20 February) demands that it implement judiciary reforms deemed essential by the European Commission to uphold the rule of law.
Poland risks being stripped of its voting rights in the 28-member bloc, but such a move requires unanimity, while Hungary said it would not support sanctions.
The European Commission has set the Polish government a late February deadline to implement measures to protect the powers of the Constitutional Court, after a series of new appointments and reforms appeared to weaken its independence.
That move came as President Andrzej Duda appointed a candidate backed by Poland’s ruling Eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party as the new head of the Constitutional Tribunal, which had been locked in a struggle with the government.
Shortly afterwards, the Commission said it considered the procedure which led to the appointment of judge Julia Przyłębska to the post as “fundamentally flawed as regards the rule of law.”
Critics have accused the ruling Law and Justice party of aiming to stack the Constitutional Tribunal with PiS supporters, undermining its ability to challenge new laws.
Law and Justice argued it was unfair that a constitutional court with a majority of judges appointed under the previous parliament should be able to scupper flagship policies for which PiS secured a mandate in democratic elections in 2015.
The unprecedented monitoring procedure that the Commission launched against Poland more than a year ago could end in Warsaw losing its voting rights in the 28-nation European Union if all other EU leaders agree to that.
Tensions between Warsaw and Brussels have grown steadily since PiS party swept to power in late 2015 and moved to change the way rulings are made at the top court and to exert more control over state prosecutors.
The Commission had already in July handed Poland a three-month deadline to reverse changes to the court or face sanctions.
The Polish foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday that it had submitted a response to the Commission’s concerns.
In a separate statement on its website, however, it said the changes Poland had implemented had been in line with European standards and had created “the right conditions for a normal functioning” of the Constitutional Court.
“Once again, Poland stressed that the existing political dispute around the principles of functioning of the Constitutional Court cannot be the basis for formulating the claim that there is a systemic threat to the rule of law,” the ministry said.
It also accused Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans of “stigmatising” Warsaw and of “playing politics”. Timmermans has been one of the EU’s most vocal voices urging Warsaw to reverse court reforms regarded by critics as unconstitutional.
It accused the Dutch socialist of “calling for other member states to create a common front with the European Commission against Poland.
“The Polish side regards Frans Timmermans’ actions and statements as being politically motivated and aimed at stigmatising a member state.”
“It is clear that the Commission cannot do it alone,” Timmermans told Reuters in an interview on Saturday. “The member states and the Commission have to stick together. Everybody has to take their responsibility.”
“(Timmermans’s call) on other member states to create a common front with the European Commission against Poland are a glaring example of violation of these rules,” the ministry said.
The probe by the European Commission could in theory lead to Brussels imposing penalties on Warsaw, but any such move would have to be backed unanimously by EU member states. Hungary has said it would not support sanctions.
Brussels loses the battle ?
In Hungary, constitutional changes, a crackdown on media and ‘special legislation’ harming the interests of foreign investors have raised eyebrows in Brussels and inspired a few infringement procedures.
But the EU executive has been less critical of Hungary, as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party Fidesz is affiliated to the European People’s Party (EPP), the leading political family in the EU. Jarosław Kaczyński’s PiS party is affiliated to ECR, the European Conservatives and Reformists group in which the UK Tories sit.
It appears therefore that Brussels may be losing its battle, which it probably should not have started. At a time when the EU is confronted to so many external crises, exacerbating internal divisions doesn’t seem to be a very good idea.
Warsaw said a dialogue between the Commission and a member country should be based on rules of respect for sovereignty, objectivity and national identity.
“We urge the vice-president of the European Commission to stop such actions,” the ministry said.
A spokeswoman for the Commission said it had received the Polish response and would study it. She also defended Brussels’ motives and actions.
“The Commission is politically colour blind when it comes to the rule of law,” she said, adding that its concerns on Poland were shared by the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the United Nations human rights body and other EU governments.
“When the rule of law in any member state is in question it is an issue for all member states,” the spokeswoman said. “Such is the nature of being part of the European Union.”
Clashes over the judicial reforms gave rise to string of large demonstrations by a new popular movement, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy.
Last week rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, FIDH (the International Federation for Human Rights) and the Open Society European Policy Institute urged the EU to take enforcement action against Warsaw.