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Court 'disease' in Poland, Hungary could spread: judicial body chief

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Changes to the court systems in Poland and Hungary that threaten judicial independence are a “disease” that could spread and undermine democracy in the European Union, the body that represents EU states’ judiciaries said on Thursday.

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The European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ) is reviewing the status of its Polish member after the Poland’s government brought the courts under increased state control.

The Hungarian member has asked the ENCJ to intervene as Prime Minister Viktor Orban proposed setting up new administrative courts that critics say would increase political influence over judges.

“The disease of Poland and Hungary could spread. It could spread to the neighboring countries,” the new head of the ENCJ, Dutchman Kees Sterk, told Reuters a day after his election. “Who says that it won’t spread to other parts of Europe.”

“What happens in Poland and in Hungary is not an (isolated)incident but it’s on a systemic level. That makes it different and that is also the worrying part,” Sterk said.

The European Union has threatened to cut funding to Poland if it does not curb the policies the bloc sees as undemocratic, and Warsaw has offered some concessions.

“The situation is still very very alarming and the changes are not enough to safeguard an independent judiciary in Poland,” Sterk said.

The bloc’s executive Commission, which leads the talks with Poland on behalf of the whole EU, has given Warsaw until the end of June to make more amends. The government of the Law and Justice (PiS) party has said it is unlikely to do so.

Meanwhile, the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice, is due to rule next month on a case brought by Ireland, which halted an extradition to Poland due to concerns about whether the country can still guarantee upholding the law.

Romania is another eastern, ex-communist EU state where there are concerns about the rule of law, with street protests in recent months over government changes to the judiciary that critics say could make it harder to fight corruption.

“The situation in Romania is a bit less worrying than in Poland and Hungary but we are not without worries,” Sterk said.

Courts have come increasingly under pressure across the EU, Sterk said, as the bloc faces a wave of populism.

“The rule of law, the separation of powers and the independence of a strong judiciary is essential to the well functioning of society,” Sterk said in his first speech after becoming head of the ENCJ.

“Without these... we will eventually end up in a dictatorship.”

Editing by Robin Pomeroy