BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Poland’s right-wing government sought to explain itself to its European Union peers on Tuesday for the second time in three months on Tuesday amid concern over changes to the judiciary that the EU believes undermine it’s courts’ independence.
Polish Minister for European Affairs Konrad Szymanski said on entering the hearing before EU ministers in Brussels that he would defend changes to the judiciary brought by the eurosceptic PiS government. He is facing a tough task.
In a joint declaration delivered by German Minister of State Michael Roth in the name of France and Germany at the start of the hearing, the two biggest EU countries said that despite numerous discussions already held with Warsaw, concerns over on the rule of law in Poland have not dissipated.
“On the contrary, since July 3rd and the implementation of the new retirement regime for Supreme Court judges, the situation has become more urgent than ever,” delegation sources quoted Roth as telling the hearing.
The hearing is part of the bloc’s procedure, called Article 7, used against countries that violate fundamental rights and the rule of law.
The process first allows EU governments to give a formal warning to a country accused of violating fundamental rights but ultimately could end in suspending its EU voting rights.
Poland’s situation echoes that of Hungary, which the European Parliament last week sanctioned for flouting EU rules on democracy, civil rights and corruption.
The process was triggered by the European Commission because the Polish government has enacted laws forcing into early retirement many Supreme Court judges, and it trying to replace them with its own nominees.
As a result Poland was suspended on Monday from the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ), which decided the Polish council is no longer independent because it is now appointed by politicians, rather than judges as before.
The forced retirement of judges has been criticized by EU institutions, human rights groups and the opposition as going against the rule of law. The Supreme Court itself has asked the European Court of Justice, the EU’s top court, to rule if the early retirement was legal, but an ECJ ruling may take months.
In the meantime, the Polish Supreme Court ruled that the proposed PiS changes should be frozen until the ECJ ruling is made. However, President Andrzej Duda, who is backed by the PiS, has moved to appoint new Supreme Court judges nonetheless.
“As we observe, in the last weeks, first steps are being taken to replace the Supreme Court Judges,” Roth said.
This was problematic, he said.
“We hope that Poland acts constructively and does not take actions which cannot be changed afterwards,” he said.
The PiS has already replaced many judges at the Polish Constitutional Tribunal and the heads of regular courts. Since coming to power in late 2015, it has also tightened its grip on public media and controls over non-government groups.
The legal paralysis of the Polish Supreme Court also poses additional difficulties because it is the institution that declares the validity of elections in the country of 38 million people. Poland is due to hold local elections in October.
In August, the European Commission stepped up its legal case against Poland taking a formal infringement procedure against Warsaw to a second level, giving Poland one month to reverse the changes or face a trial at the ECJ.
But Warsaw has made no concessions and the Commission is expected to file a lawsuit against it at the ECJ on Wednesday.
Reporting By Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Angus MacSwan