The European Commission said on Wednesday it would start legal action against Poland over an overhaul of the judiciary that it says undermines the independence of judges and breaks EU rules.
The Commission also gave Poland a month to respond to EU concerns over the rule of law raised by the EU executive in an unprecedented process launched in 2016 and now aggravated by the planned Polish legal reforms.
Polish President Andrzej Duda on Tuesday signed into law a bill giving the justice minister the power to hire and fire senior judges who head ordinary courts.
But in a move welcomed by Brussels, Duda also blocked two other bills that would have given the government and parliament power to replace Supreme Court judges.
“An independent judiciary is an essential precondition for membership in our (European) Union,” Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement. “The EU can therefore not accept a system which allows dismissing judges at will.”
“If the Polish government goes ahead with undermining the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in Poland, we will have no other choice than to trigger Article 7,” he said, referring to a legal process of suspending Poland’s voting rights in the 28-nation EU.
President Duda’s veto of the two bills came after a week of mass street protests in Poland against the measures. But Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said the government would not yield “to pressure from the street and abroad”, signaling it would not abandon the plans.
Poland’s right-wing, euroskeptic government says the reforms are needed to streamline a slow, outdated legal system and make judges more accountable to the people. It has already tightened control of state media and the constitutional court.
The Commission says the reforms infringe not only Poland’s constitution but also the European treaty.
On Wednesday the Commission said it would send a formal letter of notice to Warsaw, the first step in a legal process that may end at the EU’s top court, over the one law signed by Duda as soon as it is published in Poland’s official journal.
“It is time to restore the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal and to either withdraw the laws reforming the judiciary or bring them into line with the Polish constitution and with European standards on judicial independence,” Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans told a news conference.
Timmermans also said the Commission could start the process of suspending Poland’s voting rights in the EU before the one-month deadline if any judges are fired.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said on Wednesday the Commission’s doubts about Poland’s judicial reforms were unjustified.