The European Commission has given Poland two months from December 21 to solve the crisis around the country’s Constitutional Tribunal (TK).
The EU executive issued the ultimatum after Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) seized control of the court on December 20 when Andrzej Rzeplinski, tribunal chairman, stepped down at the end of his term. This removed the last check on PiS's untrammelled rule.
The PiS rejected the court's nominations for the new chairman and instead nominated as acting head Julia Przylebska, a PiS loyalist, under new laws the PiS had passed to ensure a party loyalist will head the court. She immediately struck off three judges proposed under the previous government and admitted three PiS-nominated judges that Rzeplinski had barred from ruling. The populist party later made Przylebska the new permanent head of the court.
These legal manoevres had already caught the attention of the Commission, which launched a probe into the state of the rule of law in Poland in January, when PiS began the process of engineering the court’s line-up to ensure it cannot get in the way of planned reforms.
The Commission has now issued additional recommendations on what Poland needs to do end the crisis, which compromises the independence of the judiciary that is of “paramount importance to the rule of law”, the Commission said.
The additional recommendations follow recommendations issued in late July that PiS however ignored. A previous deadline lapsed in October. There is little to indicate the ruling party will not ignore the new recommendations now that it has secured control of the TK.
The Commission also appears determined. “The Commission will not drop this matter and will continue to look for solutions in dialogue with Polish authorities without prejudice to other steps we might have to take if this dialogue continues to remain without results," it said in a statement.
If Poland continues to ignore the Commission's recommendations the EU could invoke Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, which strips a member state of its voting rights in the bloc.
The article has never been used and launching it requires unanimity of member states during a difficult time for the EU, facing Brexit, Greece's continuing crisis, the refugee wave and the consequent rising wave of populism. Hungary, ruled by populist strongman Viktor Orban, has already pledged to veto any sanctions against Poland.