Poland is as devoted to the rule of law as the rest of the EU. This was the response of Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, on Twitter after the European Commission on December 20 told the other 27 European Union member states that the Polish government was putting the bloc’s fundamental democratic values at risk.
The Polish foreign ministry followed with the following statement: “Poland deplores the European commission’s launch of the procedure […] which is essentially political, not legal.”
As reported by The Guardian, the Polish government has accused the European commission of a politically motivated attack after it triggered a process that could see the country stripped of voting rights in Brussels, over legal changes that the bloc claims threaten the independence of the country’s judiciary.
“Within a period of two years a significant number of laws have been adopted – 13 in total – which put in serious risk the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers,” the vice-president of the Commission, Frans Timmermans, told reporters in Brussels. “Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country’s judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority. In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law.”
Timmermans, a former Dutch diplomat, added: “We are doing this for Poland, for Polish citizens.”
Hours later the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, gave a televised address to announce he had signed into law the two bills overhauling the judiciary.
According to The Guardian, the row represents the greatest crisis in the EU since Britain’s decision to leave the EU last year, with the Polish government showing little inclination to back down.
The issuing of a formal warning to Poland has been recommended to the member states under the first clause of an, until now, unused article 7 procedure, which is regarded as a nuclear option in EU affairs. “It is with a heavy heart that we have decided to initiate Article 7.1,” Timmermans said. “But the facts leave us with no choice.”
At least 22 of the 28 member states will now need to vote in favour of the commission’s proposal for a formal warning, but Brussels is confident it has the numbers it needs.
The most serious sanction possible under article 7 would be to suspend the member state of its voting rights in EU institutions, and potentially EU financial transfers to Poland, the bloc’s largest beneficiary.
Polish state television news, controlled by the ruling Law and Justice party since the passage of a controversial media law in 2016, accompanied its coverage of the announcement with the headline “Frans Timmermans wants to take away Poles’ right to reform their own country”.
“Poland’s image and influence in the EU has already suffered under the policy of the PiS government, so the international consequences of the commission’s move will be limited, but the domestic fallout will be more important,” said Piotr Buras, director of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“State propaganda is likely to portray this decision as an hostile act of foreign oppressors directed against Poland’s democracy and sovereignty. It will fuel the narrative about Poland as a besieged fortress, and about the west betraying Poland.”