Poland speeds up contentious court reform in face of EU opposition

European Commission’s Frans Timmermans ‘not optimistic’ Poland will pull back

Prompted by the opening of EU court infringement proceedings, Poland has accelerated rather than reconsidered its controversial court reform, European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said on Tuesday.

Mr Timmermans told journalists that “sadly things have not improved” and insisted that the proceedings also under way against Warsaw in the Council of Ministers under article 7 of the EU treaty would continue.

Reporting to foreign ministers in Luxembourg, he confessed that he was “not optimistic” it could be persuaded to pull back. He cited in particular the continued replacement of judges on the Polish supreme court and reports of the intimidation of judges who had sought to apply for rulings from the Court of Justice of the EU.

Mr Timmermans said he “still hopes we can have constructive dialogue”, which he said Brussels had been working towards for months. But he was deeply concerned that he could not get assurances from Warsaw that it would agree to implement a ruling now being sought by the commission in the Court of Justice for “interim measures”, in effect an order, if granted, to hold off on the court reform.

“The independence of the judiciary is essential for the functioning of the EU as a community of law,” he said.

Voting rights

The discussion was the third in the council of the article 7 procedure against Poland over breaches to the rule of law, which could ultimately lead to Poland losing its EU voting rights. Ministers were also briefed on the first stage of similar article 7 proceedings against Hungary, in this case initiated by the European Parliament – also a first.

The Austrian presidency said the council was treading warily and slowly in running a new process – it was of “the utmost importance” to ensure that it could not be derailed. At every stage it would provide Hungary, like Poland, with an opportunity to reply to charges, and had asked the commission to report at the next meeting on the state of play of a series of separate infringement proceedings laid by it against Hungary in the Court of Justice.

Mr Timmermans denied that his recent declaration for the contest to be the Socialist group's Spitzenkandidat – lead candidate for the commission presidency in the European elections – meant he could be accused of political bias against the conservative Polish government. For three years, he said, he had been vilified as a socialist by defenders of Poland. "Nothing has changed," he said.

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times