The European Commission has taken Poland to the Court of Justice of the EU for violating the independence of the Supreme Court by using new retirement regulations to remove 27 Supreme Court judges including the court’s president, the EU executive announced on September 24.
The move will add more tension to the already strained relationship between the European Union and the populist Law and Justice (PiS) government that swept to power in 2015, promising an overhaul of the judiciary.
PiS claims that Poland’s judiciary is infested with judges of the Communist era and is rife with corporatism that makes courts unable to serve citizens efficiently.
To address that, the ruling party has introduced a series of highly contested laws that allowed it to take control of nominating judges as well as overhaul the line-ups of the country’s top courts, the Constitutional Tribunal and the Supreme Court.
The Commission has been looking into the reforms since July, suspecting they could compromise the judiciary’s independence.
The EU executive failed, however, to make Poland change the contested laws, as Warsaw kept insisting that judiciary matters are an internal affair over which Brussels eurocrats have no say.
That is symptomatic of the bottom line of PiS’ policy, which says the federalist currents in the EU are a threat to national sovereignty.
“The new Polish law on the Supreme Court lowers the retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65, putting 27 out of 72 sitting Supreme Court judges at risk of being forced to retire,” the Commission said in a statement.
“This measure also applies to the First President of the Supreme Court, whose six-year mandate, set out in the Polish Constitution, would be prematurely terminated,” it added.
Judges can ask the president – PiS loyalist Andrzej Duda – to prolong their mandate but the criteria of the presidential decision are unclear and there is no appeal procedure if he rejects the request.
“The European Commission maintains that the Polish law on the Supreme Court is incompatible with EU law as it undermines the principle of judicial independence, including the irremovability of judges,” the Commission said.
That clashes with the right to fair trial as set in the EU’s founding Treaty of Lisbon and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Commission underlined.
The Commission also asked the CJEU to suspend the application of the Supreme Court law until the CJEU issues a ruling on its compliance with EU treaties.
Poland reacted coolly to the Commission’s announcement.
“This is not particularly surprising to us, everyone knows that Poland has been in a dispute over the scope of the judicial reform for a long time,” Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters.
Morawiecki avoided declaring what Poland’s response will be if the CJEU rules against it, which is expected in up to six months, as the Commission asked the court to fast-track work on the case.
“There are many countries in the EU that do not respect rulings of the CJEU,” Morawiecki only said.
The court case comes at a potentially critical time for Poland in the EU. Apart from the court case that is now pending in the CJEU, Warsaw is being put through the so-called Article 7 procedure over its court reforms.
While there is little chance the procedure will result in stripping Poland’s voting rights in the EU, the pressure from Brussels is fuelling anti-EU sentiment.
The European Union is an “imaginary community, from which Poland benefitted only a little,” Duda declared on September 11.
Poland is, however, top beneficiary of the EU funding that aims at reducing differences in the quality of life between member states. Poland netted €102.4bn of EU funds since becoming a member state in May 2004 until end of July 2018, the ministry of finance said in late August.