The European Union has triggered an unprecedented disciplinary process against Poland in a bid to make the country’s right-wing leaders back down on judicial reforms that critics say threaten its democracy.
The European Commission decided on Wednesday to launch so-called “Article 7” proceedings against Poland, one of its largest member states. It’s a drastic measure that could ultimately lead to the “nuclear option” of suspending Warsaw’s E.U. voting rights, which has never happened to a member country before.
Over the last two years, Poland’s conservative Law and Justice government has adopted 13 laws which the EU’s ruling body fears will jeopardize fundamental democratic values by allowing for political interference in the courts. Passing legislation on Friday that gave the government effective control of judicial appointments and the supreme court finally brought the issue to a head.
“It is with a heavy heart that we have decided to initiate Article 7.1,” European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans told reporters. “But the facts leave us with no choice.”
“This is not just about Poland,” he added. “If you put an end to, or limit, the separation of powers, you break down the rule of law, and that means breaking down the functioning of the union as a whole.”
Poland responded by calling the E.U.’s decision purely political. The ruling Law and Justice party believes the new laws are necessary to tackle corruption and update a system that was never sufficiently reformed following the collapse of Communism three decades ago.
“Poland is as devoted to the rule of law as the rest of the E.U.,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Twitter. “I believe that Poland’s sovereignty and the idea of United Europe can be reconciled.”
Under Article 7 — a mechanism by which the bloc can discipline a member country that poses a serious risk to its fundamental democratic values — 22 of the E.U.’s 28 member states will need to vote in favor of issuing a formal warning against Poland. For the E.U. to strip Poland of voting rights and block its funding — the most serious sanctions available — it will need support from all other member countries. But Hungary, a close Polish ally which has also repeatedly clashed with Brussels, already said it won’t vote to sanction Poland.
Poland’s judicial reforms include new retirement ages which could force up to two-fifths of judges on the country’s supreme court to step down, unless their terms are extended with presidential approval. They also include new mechanism for “extraordinary appeal,” allowing almost any judgment since the current constitution was adopted in 1997 to be reopened with the support of the prosecutor-general, who's also the justice minister.
Aside from these judicial reforms, the right-wing Law and Justice party has also sought greater state control of the media and changes to the electoral system.