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EU may punish Poland for ‘undemocratic’ legal reforms

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is seen at the presidential palace in Warsaw on December 11, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

The European Union (EU)’s executive branch may start an unprecedented disciplinary process against Poland over its judicial reforms, which the EU says are in violation of the bloc’s human rights and democratic values.

The European Commission intends to invoke the never-before-used Article 7 of the EU’s founding Lisbon Treaty in its bid to punish Warsaw over what it views as “systemic threats” to the independence of the Polish judiciary.

Poland’s new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had announced last week that the EU would “probably activate” Article 7 proceedings, which are regarded as the “nuclear option” against an EU member state as they can lead to a suspension of voting rights at the European Council.

The development came after Polish lawmakers last week adopted new reforms allowing the parliament to pick members of a body that protects judicial independence and to reinforce political control over the Supreme Court.

“Unless the Polish government postpones these court reforms, we will have no choice but to trigger Article 7,” a senior EU official said anonymously on Wednesday, prior to a Commission meeting where Poland’s reforms were on the agenda.

The Commission’s Deputy Chief Frans Timmermans had also warned in July that Poland was “perilously close” to facing sanctions.

However, such a penalty may still be blocked, since Poland’s closest ally in the EU, Hungary, will likely argue strongly against the move and veto it.

Still, the mere threat of triggering the article points to the sharp weakening of ties between Warsaw and Brussels, which started when the socially conservative Law and Justice (PiS) Party took power in Poland in late 2015.

The PiS government rejects allegations of undemocratic behavior and emphasizes that its reforms are necessary since courts are slow, inefficient, and impacted by a communist-era mentality.

The reforms would grant the PiS-controlled legislature de facto control over the selection of judges and bring an early end to the terms of some Supreme Court judges.

The Council of Europe, which serves as the EU’s human rights authority, has compared such measures to those of the former Soviet Union.

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