The European Union’s executive arm triggered proceedings against Poland on Wednesday over Warsaw’s contentious overhaul of its justice system, a move that could lead to unprecedented sanctions as Brussels struggles to keep the recalcitrant member state on a democratic path.
The decision to trigger what is known as Article 7 comes in reaction to several laws that the right-wing Law and Justice party has enacted during its two years in power that give it greater control over the justice system. Two of those laws — one on the Constitutional Tribunal and another giving the justice minister power to name the presidents of all ordinary courts — have already taken effect.
Only the next stage of Article 7 would involve sanctions, including the loss of voting rights in the Council. This step, however, is considered unlikely to happen because it requires unanimity of EU countries and Hungary’s government has vowed to block any such move.
“We are doing this for Poland, for Polish citizens” so they can rely on a fully independent judiciary in their nation, which is a key underpinning of EU principles, EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans said.
Poland’s government, which has defiantly gone forward with an overhaul of its court system despite two years of warnings from the EU, took the decision in stride.
Zbigniew Ziobro, who is both justice minister and prosecutor general as part of the changes, which have hugely strengthened his powers, said he received the news with “calm” and said Poland’s government “must continue the reforms.”
He insisted the provisions were drawn from the justice systems of Western EU members.
Two additional laws have been passed by parliament and still await the signature of the president.
The Commission must now submit a request to the EU member states to declare “a clear risk of serious breach of the rule of law” in Poland. That is essentially a warning, or in EU lingo, a “preventative” measure, that will require that acceptance of 22 EU countries.