We have the right to shape our own legal system, Polish PM tells EU

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki delivering a speech on the Future of Europe at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 04 July 2018. [EPA-EFE/FRED MARVAUX]

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defended his country’s recent overhaul of the judiciary on Wednesday (4 July), while laying out his vision for Europe’s future.

“Each country in the Union holds the right to shape its own legal system, in accordance with its own traditions,” Morawiecki told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

He defended his government’s controversial judicial reforms, stating that “unity in diversity” and “constitutional pluralism” are fundamental principles of the EU and “not an empty slogan” and the “respect of national identities” is an essential basis for Europe.

A law came into force this week that lowered the age limit for judges on the Supreme Court to 65. As a result, 27 out of 73 judges have been forced to retire since Wednesday. Several of them refuse to do so and see the reform as an attempt by the conservative government to fill the posts with supportive magistrates.

Debate on Poland instead of Europe debate

“Poland is a proud country, please do not lecture us, we know exactly how to manage our institutions,” Morawiecki said.

He argued that the reforms are needed to democratise a judicial system that has never been properly dealt with since the fall of communism.

“Do you know that these martial law judges who have given shameful sentences are in the Supreme Court that you defend?” the Polish PM asked MEPs.

“Judges are much more independent today than they were before, we strengthened the independence of the judges, strengthened our objectivity”, he said, pointing out that the European Court of Human Rights had also introduced rules on early retirement of judges.

The Commission accuses Warsaw of curtailing the independence of the judiciary and undermining the separation of powers. It has started an Article 7 TEU procedure against the country to determine the state of play on rule of law, and second infringement procedure was started last week.

For his part, the Polish PM argued that Europe was “experiencing a democratic awakening, which proves that we must revive the social contract, which is responsible for the great success of the post-war integration.” According to Morawiecki, one of the reasons for the trust crisis in the EU is the fact that “people have a freedom gene in themselves and want to decide for themselves about their lives.”

He added that the EU should work towards a ‘Union of Nations 2.0’, a reference to the Union of Nations advocated in the 1950s and 60s by former French President Charles de Gaulle. This should focus on responding to the digital industrial revolution, industrial revolution, European security issues and greater engagement of citizens.

“If it were not for the Iron Curtain and the tragic division of Europe after the Second World War, Poland would also be one of the founders of the European communities,” Morawiecki told MEPs.

MEPs address criticism

That did little to placate MEPs, with the debate focusing on the state of rule of law in Poland rather than Morawiecki’s future of Europe vision.

“These are questions that bother us and I think that today you lost the opportunity to explain this,”  said EPP leader Manfred Weber.

S&D leader Udo Bullmann stressed that the EU is one body and “we need both parts – eastern and western”.

“We expect you to answer the questions raised by the representative of the Commission, by Frans Timmermans, whom we fully support,” Bullmann said.

The actions of the Polish government were also criticised by ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt, who called the reform of the judicial system a “legitimate goal”, but, referring to the findings of the Venice Commission, said that the government’s reforms “have a striking resemblance with the institutions in the Soviet Union and their satellite states.”

However, Ryszard Legutko of the European Conservative and Reformists accused his colleague’ criticisms of being “hopelessly predictable”.

“Apparently no one is willing to discuss the future of Europe and (would) rather focus on Poland bashing,” he said.

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