Poland is scheduled to explain the whys and wherefores of the government’s judiciary reforms on September 18, as the EU Council – a grouping of government officials from all member states – will hold a hearing on the issue.
The hearing is part of Brussels’ ongoing probe into the judiciary reforms that the EU says are in breach of EU law. Poland considers that an unfounded meddling with its internal affairs, suggesting that Brussels’ politically driven hostility to the right-wing populist government of Law and Justice (PiS) is also at play.
The standoff has effectively kept Poland isolated in the EU for close to three years now and – in theory – could lead to Poland being stripped of its voting rights in the bloc. Such a development would, however, require unanimity of all member states. Poland’s ally Hungary – whose populist leader Viktor Orban inspires Poland’s ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) – has said a number of times it will not back any sanctions against Warsaw.
PiS has overhauled nearly the entire judiciary system in Poland with a series of laws that are widely considered unconstitutional.
PiS claims, however, that the reforms were necessary in order to cleanse courts of judges active during Communism as well as to make courts more efficient and less mired in corporatism.
Following the changes, PiS now controls Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal and the process of appointing judges in the common courts. Poland’s judge-appointing body KRS was suspended in the European Networks of Councils for the Judiciary on September 17.
The government also has influence over the disciplinary bodies of the judiciary, which critics say is now being put to use against judges critical of the government.
The party is also moving swiftly to complete takeover of the Supreme Court, including the replacement of the court’s head Malgorzata Gersdorf, whose six-year term is written into the Constitution.
The EU, knowing that the ultimate vote on sanctioning Poland is still months away and will most likely be ineffective because of Hungary’s support for Warsaw, has kept the pressure on Poland, however.
Possibly where Brussels could hurt Poland the most is the EU’s next budget. Some countries argue for tying the disbursement of the cohesion funding – money flows to reduce gaps in standard of living between member states – to adhering to the rule of law, which is threatened by Warsaw’s judiciary reforms.
Separately, Polish state-run news agency PAP reported on September 17 that the European Commission is going to take Poland to the EU Court of Justice over changes to the law on the Supreme Court that allowed the replacement of Gersdorf and other judges.
Poland says the Commission’s doubts about the independence of the Supreme Court are groundless.