Polish Leader Says EU Can't Stop Controversial Court Overhaul

(Bloomberg) -- The European Commission’s threat to sue Poland over a judicial overhaul "won’t break" the government’s determination to push through changes that have drawn international condemnation and sparked street protests, the head of the ruling party said.

Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has pushed back against European Union officials’ efforts to halt what they say is a threat to rule of law in the country of 38 million people. Following sweeping changes that have ousted judges from courts and given the government broad influence over the judiciary, the bloc’s executive took the first step last week toward a possible lawsuit against Warsaw.

Kaczynski argues that the changes, which included last week’s forced retirement of Supreme Court judges, are necessary to advance deeper reforms in the former-communist nation. Critics say they amount to a power grab that undermines democracy and epitomizes a slide away from the EU’s values that’s been embraced by an increasing number of populist politicians across the bloc. The European Commission has recommended members start a process that could strip Poland of its voting rights.

“If we don’t reform the judiciary, all other changes won’t make sense as they will be sooner or later reversed, negated by the courts we have,” Kaczynski, who wields the power behind the conservative government despite holding no elected post other than legislator, said in an interview with the Sieci weekly newspaper published Monday. ‘It’s an either-or situation.”

Also at stake are EU funds for poorer nations, which could cost Poland, the biggest recipient, billions of euros in aid and has provided a bumpy ride for investors. With emerging-market assets suffering across the globe, the zloty has lost 3.7 percent against the euro this year. It has closely trailed a decline in the forint of Hungary, another country that has clashed with the EU over democratic standards as Prime Minister Viktor Orban tries to consolidate his vision of an illiberal democracy based on the model of Russia and Turkey.

Last week, a law came into effect introducing a retirement age of 65 for Supreme Court justices, requiring as many as 27 of the 73, including President Malgorzata Gersdorf, to leave. The law allows judges to petition President Andrzej Duda to remain for longer, and at least 16 have done so. While the ruling party considers Gersdorf, 65, officially retired, she continued working, invoking a clause that she can appoint a temporary chief justice when she’s away on vacation. Her term officially ends in 2020.

Jagger Barb

Thousands of Poles took to the streets last week to protest what Gersdorf has called a purge. The dismissal of judges also drew criticism from Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger after former President and Solidarity union leader Lech Walesa sent him a letter asking for support.

“I’m too old to be a judge, but not too old to sing,” Jagger, speaking Polish, told tens of thousands of fans at Warsaw’s national stadium in a concert on Sunday.

Kaczynski rejected the idea that Poland could lose its EU voting rights via the process recommended by the commission, known as Article 7. Hungary has vowed to protect its like-minded eastern peer in a vote that would require unanimity to mete out the punishment. The bigger risk is a proposal by some EU leaders to tie future EU budget disbursements to adherence to the bloc’s standards on the rule of law.

"This process is groundless and is being continued, even as it’s almost certain that authors of this plan would loose a vote in the EU Council," Kaczynski said of Article 7. "But let’s keep in mind that in the background there’s a discussion about the money, about the EU budget."

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