Poland takes step back in court reform to please EU, voters

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s lower house of parliament on Thursday approved changes to judiciary reforms in a bid to soothe European Union concerns that the rule of law in Poland would be weakened.

Poland's Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz speaks during a news conference about expelling Russian diplomats, in Warsaw, Poland March 26, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Dawid Zuchowiczi via REUTERS

After a two-year standoff between the bloc’s largest ex-communist member and the more liberal founding states, Poland’s ruling nationalists have agreed to take some steps back on a court overhaul they see as central to their reform agenda.

The EU’s executive signaled on Wednesday that a deal could be reached very soon, meaning the EU would take off the table a threat to punish Warsaw through a procedure that could go as far as suspending its vote in the bloc.

Warsaw also stands to lose because some EU members have pushed to make access to future EU funding conditional on respecting democratic values such as the rule of law and judicial independence.

In Poland, however, Supreme Court chief Malgorzata Gersdorf said in a statement that the concessions offered by PiS were “illusory”.

“The proposed changes ... do not serve the purpose of resolving the ongoing dispute over the rule of law. (They) do not address the most controversial issues,” she said in a statement.

After Thursday’s late-evening vote, the Senate is expected to approve the new rules on Friday. President Andrzej Duda then has 3 weeks to sign them into law or veto them.

Since its election in 2015, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) has said its reforms were crucial to make courts more efficient and fair.

It has argued the judiciary was staffed to a large degree by people seeped in communist-era mentality and power structures, and promised to change that. The EU accused PiS of politicizing courts.

Foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz said on Wednesday that the essence of the reform would not be changed. But PiS is keen for a thaw with Brussels ahead of a series of elections this year and next.

“We want to end this dispute and we want to do it quickly. We want to end the dialogue between the PiS government and the (Commission),” the speaker of the upper house of parliament Stanislaw Karczewski said at a regular briefing on Wednesday.

At the heart of the dispute lie changes to the judiciary that, among other things, would give the justice minister powers to replace court presidents.

Under amendments now proposed by PiS, the minister would have to consult other judges at a court before deciding to sack its head. If their opinion was negative, a national judicial body which is dominated by PiS appointees would then be consulted.

The European Commission also welcomed changes that said a new compulsory retirement age for judges would be the same for men and women. PiS had initially set it at 65 years for men and 60 for women. This would slow down the process of retiring the present judges.

Reporting by Pawel Sobczak; additional reporting by Marcin Goclowski; Writing by Marcin Goclowski; Editing by Toby Chopra