Poland Sets Stage for EU Standoff
A contentious overhaul of the country’s judiciary could see Brussels invoke the “nuclear option.”
Poland appears heading toward a major showdown with the European Union after the country’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party rammed a hotly-contested judicial reform bill through parliament Saturday.
The bill, which must be signed by President Andrzej Duda before it becomes law, would effectively grant PiS the power to stack the country’s court system with friendly judges. EU officials have hinted that Brussels could invoke Article 7 — a mechanism for sanctioning Poland and suspending its voting rights within the 28-country bloc — if the bill is enacted.
Article 7 has never been activated before.
As the PiS-controlled parliament considered the bill late into the night of July 21, opponents of the measure, crying “free courts,” took to city streets around the country in the tens of thousands. The legislation, despite the protests, passed.
Though Duda has offered mild critiques of the bill in recent weeks, he’s widely expected to sign off on it.
The ball, then, is in Brussels’ court. On July 19, European Commissioner Frans Timmermans, citing concern for Poland’s democracy, warned that Article 7 could be triggered “very soon.” A provision of the Treaty of European Union, Article 7 allows Brussels to temporarily strip the rights of member states that are found to be in violation of EU “values.”
The authority to make such a determination ultimately resides in the European Council, which is made up of the leaders of the bloc’s 28 member states. The Council must make that determination unanimously, excluding the member state under review.
Last year, one of the Council’s number, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, publicly vowed to oppose any move to sanction Poland. Marcin Horala, a PiS member of parliament, recently told Poland’s Republika TV, “Hungary has already declared it wouldn’t support the procedure, which actually ends the whole fuss.”
To thwart Orban’s defense of Warsaw, officials in Brussels are rumored to be weighing Article 7 action against Hungary, too. Budapest has courted controversy within the EU for passing a pair of laws that target foreign-funded educational institutions and NGOs.
Poland’s proposed judiciary reform comes as the latest of a series of hot-button PiS initiatives designed to consolidate the party’s grip on power. Previously, PiS has put Poland’s military and the media in its sights.
PiS members argue that an overhaul of the Poland court system is long overdue. “The courts have essentially stayed the same as in communist Poland,” PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski explained on July 1.
Writing for the American Enterprise Institute, Dalibor Rohac observes that Poland is “outperforming most of its Central European neighbors on metrics such as the World Bank’s Rule of Law and Control of Corruption. And, as for the communist-dominated courts, the average age of a judge in Poland is 38 years.”
President Donald Trump visited Warsaw in early July, where he praised Poland as “an example for others who seek freedom.”
But on July 21, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert upbraided the Polish government for pursuing “legislation that appears to undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law in Poland.”
Photo Credit: WOJTEK RADWANSKI / AFP / Getty Images