EU Says Poland Must Do More to Quell Concern Over Court Revamps

(Bloomberg) -- Poland was grilled by its European Union colleagues over democratic values at an unprecedented hearing on Tuesday, just days before its latest court overhaul is set to make irrevocable changes to the justice system.

The EU’s executive said after the hearing that Poland must do more to address concerns over its judiciary revamps. The peer review took place eight days before new regulations are set to force as many as two-fifths of the nation’s Supreme Court justices into retirement, which would amount to an “irreversible violation of the rule of law,” according to European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans.

“Let me be very clear, the systemic threat to the rule of law persists,” Timmermans told reporters after the meeting in Luxembourg. “So for us to be able to say that it no longer persists, we will need some more steps on the Polish side.”

He said the the commission believes that the more than two-year-old standoff should be solved through dialog. Bulgaria, which holds the bloc’s rotating presidency, said EU ministers will “make an assessment of the situation and decide further steps” at their next meeting.

The EU is in uncharted territory regarding its standoff against Poland at a time when the bloc has to deal with new priorities such as immigration, security and its post-Brexit future. The clash also carries a risk of a deepening rift over the bloc’s next multiannual budget, with Poland -- the biggest net beneficiary of the current fiscal plan -- having a veto over the total sum. Brussels proposed to tilt aid toward southern Europe, which would hit Poland and its post-communist neighbors.

‘Critical’ Revamp

Before the hearing, Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski reiterated his view that Poland’s judicial changes were compatible with those in other EU nations, while noting that “intense efforts” to clarify the issues didn’t help resolve the standoff.

The Council of Europe, a 49-nation democracy watchdog, said in a report last week that the looming reshuffle in the Supreme Court, together with previous overhauls, “enable the legislative and executive powers to influence the functioning of the judiciary in Poland in a critical manner, thereby significantly weakening the independence of the judiciary.”

Joint View

France’s European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau spoke for Paris and Berlin, according to Politico, in a sign that the EU’s heavyweights are on the same page when it comes to values. The choice of a French politician for the role may also help allay historic concerns over Germany preaching to Poland.

If the dispute fails to ease, member nations could vote on whether Poland poses a “clear risk of a serious breach” of EU values. Still, imposing political sanctions such as suspending voting rights would require unanimity among member countries and Hungary has already said it would back Poland.

“The meeting is unlikely to result in Polish authorities suddenly showing some basic respect for the rule of law and not going ahead with their unconstitutional purge of the Supreme Court,” Laurent Pech, a professor of European law at Middlesex University in London, told Bloomberg. “Poland is winning but at a very high cost in terms of reputation and possibly an even higher cost with respect to the next EU budget.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.