The Irish Times view on Poland’s authoritarian drift: a big question for the judiciary

Ms Justice Aileen Donnelly of the High Court has asked the European Court of Justice to determine whether changes to the judicial system in Poland have undermined its ability to give a Polish national a fair trial. Photograph: Alan Betson

Ms Justice Aileen Donnelly of the High Court has asked the European Court of Justice to determine whether changes to the judicial system in Poland have undermined its ability to give a Polish national a fair trial. Photograph: Alan Betson

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Artur Celmer will not be in the court today. He’s still in an Irish jail awaiting the deliberations of the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) over the Polish warrant for his extradition. The hearing, expedited because of Celmer’s incarceration, will also be closely watched all over Europe. On the court’s view of a question referred to it by Ms Justice Aileen Donnelly of the High Court hangs the future of all extraditions to Poland from the EU.

And, just as importantly, the court could deliver a damning judicial assessment of the state of the rule of law in Poland and the “reforms” of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

That would provide important political ammunition for the European Commisssion’s action against Poland under Article 7 of the EU treaty which accuses Warsaw of “systematic” undermining of the rule of law and judicial independence. That lengthy procedure could ultimately see Poland stripped of its voting rights in the union.

The changes to the role of the minister for justice in Poland have given the holder of that office “too many powers for one person” and have weakened the independence of the judiciary, the Commission has said. Ms Justice Donnelly has understandably asked the CJEU to determine whether such changes have undermined both Poland’s ability to give Celmer a fair trial and the mutual trust between member states in each other’s judicial systems that is the basis for the near-automatic transfer of accused under the European Arrest Warrant system.

Her surprise intervention into the Polish debate has provoked angry responses in Poland, whose deputy justice minister Marcin Warchol accused her of engaging in “political games”. It is understood that lawyers from the Attorney General’s Office will today argue at the hearing, supported by the Commission, that while the judge’s concerns about the rule of law are justified, the changes are not such yet as to jeopardise a fair trial for Celmer. The execution of the warrant, they will argue, should proceed. The court will also hear from his lawyers and lawyers representing the Polish government.

Meanwhile, talks between Brussels and Warsaw are continuing, with Commission Vice-President Franz Timmermans welcoming some adjustments being made by the Poles to the legal reform, but warning that unless agreement is reached ahead of the June EU summit – a crucial rendezvous on more than one issue – the Article 7 process will continue.

Timmermans told journalists that “the main issue remains how much political control can you have to be able to say that the judiciary is independent”, citing the law on Poland’s “national council for the judiciary” which is responsible for nominating judges.

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