EU ministers back commission over Polish rule-of-law concerns

Andrzej Duda has said he wants greater control over judicial appointments

EC vice-president Frans Timmermans. Photograph: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

EC vice-president Frans Timmermans. Photograph: Reuters/Francois Lenoir


EU ministers have given strong support to the European Commission’s attempts to persuade Poland to row back on plans to politicise its judiciary.

Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said, following the General Affairs Council (GAC) meeting in Brussels, that ministers had expressed the near unanimous view that the defence of the rule of law was not just a matter between the commission and Poland but an urgent issue of concern for all member states. They urged continuation and intensification of the dialogue between Warsaw and Brussels.

Mr Timmermans urged the Poles to submit its legal reforms to the Venice Commission, Europe’s predominant expert advisory body on constitutional law, and promised that the commission would carefully study new proposed amendments announced by Polish president Andrzej Duda.

Mr Duda, a close ally of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party who, following nationwide protests, had unexpectedly vetoed large parts of the party’s controversial overhaul of the judiciary, said on Monday that he, as president, wanted a greater say over judges’ nomination.  

Under his plans, parliament would require a three-fifths majority, not just a simple majority, to appoint new judges, and the president would be able to intervene if lawmakers cannot agree. The PiS does not have a three-fifths majority in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament.

Mr Duda also said the retirement age for supreme court judges should be set at 65 and that the president should decide whether they can work longer. It is unlikely the proposed changes will pass muster with Brussels.

Greek deficit

The GAC also closed the excessive deficit procedure for Greece, a landmark moment in the country’s continuing economic recovery. It confirmed that the country’s deficit is now below 3 per cent of GDP, the EU’s reference value for government deficits. 

“After many years of severe difficulties, Greece’s finances are in much better shape. Today’s decision is therefore welcome,” said Toomas Tõniste, minister for finance of Estonia, which currently holds the European Council presidency. “We are now in the last year of the financial support programme, and progress is being made to enable Greece to again raise money on the financial markets at sustainable rates.” 

From a deficit of 15.1 per cent of GDP reached in 2009, Greece’s fiscal balance has steadily improved, turning into a 0.7 per cent of GDP surplus in 2016. Although a small deficit is projected for 2017, the fiscal outlook is expected to improve again thereafter. Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio peaked at 179 per cent in 2016 and is expected to decrease over the coming years. 

Greece will now be subject to the preventive arm of the EU’s fiscal rulebook, the Stability and Growth Pact. Monitoring will continue until August 2018 under its macroeconomic adjustment programme, and post-programme monitoring will follow.

The Greek authorities have committed to maintaining a primary surplus of 3.5 per cent of GDP until 2022 and after that, a fiscal trajectory consistent with EU fiscal requirements.