(Bloomberg) -- Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki faced off against European Union lawmakers over a domestic judicial overhaul that has put a political and legal EU pinch on Poland, which also risks suffering a financial hit as a result of the dispute.
In an appearance at the European Parliament, Morawiecki gave an unabashed defense of Polish legislation that forced two-fifths of Supreme Court justices in the country into retirement this month unless they received special permission from Poland’s president -- Andrzej Duda -- to stay on.
Members of the EU assembly lashed out at Morawiecki, saying the revamp is an unacceptable political assault on judicial independence by giving Poland’s ruling Law & Justice party too much sway over the courts.
“There’s a question of principles, of our common community,” Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the pro-business Liberals in the 28-nation Parliament, said during a debate on Wednesday in Strasbourg, France. “Reform of the judiciary is certainly a legitimate goal, but forcing judges to retire -- delivering them to the will and the whim of the governing majority -- can never be part of such a reform.”
The debate, part of a series with EU government leaders on the “Future of Europe,” highlights the tensions in the bloc over how to deal with member countries’ respect for the rule of law. The exchange also shows the degree of concern in EU circles about Poland’s transformation from a post-communist success story to a major political headache.
While nations seeking to join the EU are measured on their respect for fundamental European values, countries face relatively few constraints in this area once inside the bloc. Pushes in Poland and Hungary for greater political control over state institutions have left EU regulators and politicians scrambling to come up with a containment strategy.
Poland is the focus of the EU’s first-ever probe into a member country’s respect for the rule of law -- an inquiry that could ultimately strip the country of its voting rights in the bloc -- and faces a possible European lawsuit over the legislation on Supreme Court justices.
Furthermore, the EU is weighing possible curbs on generous regional-development funding for member countries that drift toward authoritarianism -- a move that could hit Poland hard because it’s the biggest net beneficiary of the bloc’s 140 billion-euro ($163 billion) annual budget.
Morawiecki said on Wednesday that the Polish judicial revamp is part of a legitimate drive by Law & Justice to rid the country of lingering communist influences.
“We are now trying to throw off the post-communist yoke,” he said.
The overhaul is generating protests in Poland as well. As many as 4,000 Poles demonstrated at the Polish Supreme Court in Warsaw on Tuesday evening and several hundred showed up on Wednesday morning, according to estimates by the city hall. Former President Lech Walesa, who led Poland’s anti-communist Solidarity movement in the 1980s, said he would join the demonstrations.
“The rule of law is in the very roots of Poland and in the hearts of the Polish people and Europe will not turn its back to the Polish people,” said Manfred Weber, head of the EU Parliament’s Christian Democrats. “If the Polish government does not preserve the great Polish achievements, Europe will do so.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.