BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission will take action against Poland if its government is harassing judges for consulting the European Court of Justice on the legality of Polish reforms, Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans said on Tuesday.
Timmermans, responsible in the Commission for making sure European Union countries observe the rule of law, was responding to a letter from Poland’s biggest judge association Iustitia, which asked him to act.
Iustitia urged Timmermans to sue the euroskeptic Polish government over the harassment of judges who question the legality of the government’s judicial reforms by asking the opinion of the ECJ.
“Every Polish judge is also a European judge, so no one should interfere with the right of a judge to pose questions to the European Court of Justice,” Timmermans told reporters on entering a meeting of EU ministers who were to discuss Poland’s observance of the rule of law.
“If that is becoming something of a structural matter, if judges are being faced with disciplinary measures because they ask questions to the court in Luxembourg, then of course the Commission will have to act,” he said, without elaborating.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has been in conflict with the Commission over its handling of Polish courts since the start of 2016. Most EU countries back the Commission.
“The combined effect of the legislative changes could put at risk the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers in Poland,” German Minister for Europe Michael Roth and French Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau said in a joint statement at a ministerial meeting with Timmermans.
“In this context, the amendments made so far by the Polish authorities are not sufficient,” they said, according to delegation officials.
Worried about the government flouting basic democratic standards in the country of 38 million people, the Commission has launched an unprecedented procedure on whether Poland is observing the rule of law, which serves mainly as a means of political pressure.
The procedure could lead to the loss of voting power in the EU for a government that does not observe the rule of law.
“Sadly, not much has changed and some things even have worsened,” Timmermans said.
The EU has launched a similar procedure against Hungary, where the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban is raising concern in other EU countries. Brussels has also warned Romania to stop its push for influence over the judicial system.
Iustitia, grouping one third of all Polish judges, wrote to Timmermans to act against repressive disciplinary steps against judges by the National Council of Judiciary, which, under changes made by the government, is now appointed by politicians from the ruling PiS parliamentary majority.
“The proceedings are usually initiated against judges who are active in the field of defending the rule of law, among others by educational actions, meetings with citizens, international activity,” Iustitia head Krystian Markiewicz wrote in the letter to Timmermans, seen by Reuters.
“Therefore I appeal for referring Poland to the Court of Justice of the European Union in connection with the regulations concerning the disciplinary proceedings against judges.”
Additional reporting by Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Jan Strupczewski; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Gareth Jones
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