Poland’s president Andrzej Duda has signed controversial judicial reforms into law, hours after the European Commission said they undermined the rule of law as it opened an unprecedented sanctions procedure.
If backed by EU political leaders, the “article 7” procedure triggered by the commission could see a member state hit with financial sanctions or the loss of voting rights.
But Mr Duda said the new judicial reforms “serve the democratisation of the country”.
The latest twist in an 18-month confrontation between Brussels and Poland’s conservative government could sour relations between member states, anxious to show unanimity in Brexit talks.
Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said it was with a “heavy heart” that he was invoking article 7.1 of the EU treaty, after a nearly two-year investigation, numerous meetings and more than 25 letters.
“If you put an end or limit the separation of powers, you break down the rule of law, and that means breaking down the smooth functioning of the union as a whole,” he said.
Since taking office two years ago, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) government has pushed through radical reform of state media, the general prosecutor and the judiciary.
By his count, Mr Timmermans said 13 laws had been enacted that put at “serious risk” the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers.
“The entire structure of the justice system is affected,” he said, mentioning reforms of laws affecting the constitutional tribunal, the supreme court, ordinary courts and bodies to appoint judges.
“The ruling majority can now systematically interfere with the composition, power, and administration or functioning of these authorities,” he said, “thereby rendering the independence of the judiciary completely moot.”
Poland’s new prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki says the reforms are crucial to shake up encrusted structures and rid an inefficient judiciary of cronyism.
“Poland is as devoted to the rule of law as the rest of the EU,” he said. After an “open and honest” dialogue, he was hopeful that the situation could be resolved.
Throughout the investigation, Poland’s government has shrugged off concerns from the Brussels executive, leading European human rights groups and Polish opposition.
Warsaw views the investigation as an infringement of Polish sovereignty, and the reform mandate won by the majority PiS administration two years ago.
A Polish government spokesperson suggested on Thursday the move was “politically motivated” because of Warsaw’s refusal to accept Muslim asylum seekers.
The reforms have alarmed leading Polish constitutional experts, and opposition politicians, who view them as part of a long-term plan to bring the state under control of the ruling PiS party.
After appointing party loyalists to the constitutional tribunal in a legally contested procedure, the legislation signed into law on Wednesday will force 40 per cent of supreme court judges to retire, unless the justice minister decides otherwise.
Replacements to the supreme court, and other chambers, will in future be named by a reformed body dominated by the ruling party.
Next March EU leaders are expected to consider and vote on the article 7 procedure. Moving to the next stage requires a four-fifths majority of leaders in the European Council and European Parliament backing.
Unless changes are made, a second vote would be required to confirm a “serious and persistent breach”.
However, the EU’s “nuclear option” of sanctions and withdrawal of voting rights requires a unanimous vote. That is likely to be vetoed by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who is accused of anti-democratic reforms of his own.
But with EU multi-annual budget talks looming, some EU leaders are hoping to exert pressure on Warsaw in other quarters.