EU begins assessment of Poland over controversial new laws

Media Bill and changes to Poland’s highest court under review by European Commission

European Commission first vice-president Frans Timmermans: his announcement of a preliminary review of controversial new laws introduced by the governing Law and Justice Party will increase tensions between the EU and the new Polish government over. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

European Commission first vice-president Frans Timmermans: his announcement of a preliminary review of controversial new laws introduced by the governing Law and Justice Party will increase tensions between the EU and the new Polish government over. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

 

Political pressure increased on Poland on Wednesday after the European Commission launched the first step in a procedure that could ultimately lead to its suspension from the EU Council of Ministers.

European Commission first vice president Frans Timmermans said the commission would carry out a preliminary assessment of recently-introduced legislation governing Poland’s highest court in order to assess its compatibility with EU rule-of-law standards.

While the move marks the first step in a process that could lead to the invocation of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty – which allows the EU to suspend the voting rights of countries deemed to be in breach of EU democratic standards – the commission is not expected to invoke the procedure. Nonetheless, the move will increase tensions between the EU and the new Polish government over controversial new laws introduced by the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS).

Announcing the decision following a discussion among the college of 28 commissioners in Brussels, Mr Timmermans said that the information so far showed that “binding rulings of the constitutional tribunal are currently not being respected”.

“There are measures that are being taken by the newly elected Poland legislature that affect its functioning. Today we have decided that the commission will carry out a preliminary assessment on this matter under the rule-of-law framework,” he said.

“The purpose of the approach we have launched is to clarify the facts in an objective way, assess the situation in more depth, and start a dialogue with Polish authorities without pre-judging any possible next steps.”

International criticism

Poland, which elected its first single-party government since 1989 following the election victory of the PiS party in October, has received international criticism following its introduction of new legislation which many believe will curtail media and judicial freedom.

A controversial media Bill will give the government power to directly appoint the heads of public broadcasters, while changes to the constitutional court are expected to make it more difficult for judges to strike down new laws.

While there have been protests against the new measures in Warsaw, counter-protests in support of the government have also taken place in recent weeks.

Addressing the Polish parliament on Wednesday, prime minister Beata Szydlo denied any breach of democratic norms. “Democracy is alive and well in Poland,” she said, noting that the government was carrying out a programme supported by Poles who had brought the party to power in the October general election.

Amnesty International welcomed the commission’s announcement as “an important step by the EU towards upholding human rights in the region”.

“Amnesty International has repeatedly called for decisive action from the European Commission to address serious human rights concerns in the past, particularly in the case of Hungary, ” said Iverna McGowan, head of Amnesty in Brussels. “The willingness of the commission to use the rule-of-law framework is a positive step towards a more serious approach by the EU to speak out and hold its own member states to account on their human rights records.”

The right-wing PiS was elected on a eurosceptic and socially conservative agenda, winning 235 seats in the 460-seat lower house of parliament. Led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of Poland’s late president Lech, who died in a plane crash in 2010, the party unseated the Civic Platform party, which had been in power for eight years.