Polish PM defends controversial judiciary reform

Top Supreme Court judges have defied directives to comply with the new law and quit their posts.

Warsaw, Poland – After thousands of Poles took to the streets to protest against it back home, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday defended the enactment of a controversial judiciary reform before European Parliament in Strasbourg as the will of his people.

The new Supreme Court law, which went into force on Tuesday, required 27 of Poland‘s 72 Supreme Court judges, including its chief justice, to retire after lowering the mandatory retirement age to 65.

While the reform has earned near-universal condemnation from activists on the ground, and international organisations, including NGOs and the European Commission, Morawiecki said that EU countries had the right to shape their courts in accordance to their own traditions.

“Every country has a right to set up its own legal values with its own traditions,” he said.

“You can call it populism, but, sooner or later, the following question must be asked: is meeting the expectations of our citizens truly populistic or, maybe, it is the essence of democracy.”

The remarks from Morawiecki drew immediate criticism from members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, with members calling it a threat to the rule of law that it is also divisive to all of Europe.

“If there is a systemic threat to the rule of law, we cannot simply turn a blind eye. We cannot simply say: this is a purely national issue,” Valdis Dombrovskis, vice president of the European Commission and commissioner for the eurozone and social dialogue said.

“So, where the separation of powers is weakened in one country or where the independence of the judiciary is challenged in another, it becomes a European issue which affects our whole community,” he continued.

Legislators of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), of which populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party are members, also criticised the law.

“What we have to do is fight for the interests of European citizens, not divide them into good and bad Europeans. Let’s discuss the future of our continent together. Let’s stick together. Let’s not divide any more. This would be a great message to hear from a Polish Prime Minister,” Manfred Weber, chairman of the EPP Group said.

Their sentiments were matched by several international organisations on Wednesday including Magistrats Europeens pour la Democratie et les Libertes (European Judges for Democracy and Liberty), an association of European judges and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, who accuse Poland of ignoring the appeals of the international judicial community and subordinating judiciary to executive power.

But even as the Tuesday deadline for the 27 judges to hand in their resignations came and went, none came and on Wednesday hundreds of supportive demonstrators swarmed Chief Justice Malgorzata Gersdorf as she returned to work.

“I do not engage in politics. I am doing this to defend the rule of law and to mark the boundary between the constitution and the violation of the Constitution,” Gersdorf told demonstrators and reporters. “I hope legal order will come back to Poland.”

Protests in Poland have been on a gradual build in recent days with thousands upon thousands taking to the streets in towns and cities across the country.

The European Commission notified the Polish government that it had begun infringement proceedings into the matter a day before the reform became law in retaliation for what it claims is a fundamental threat to the values upon which the EU was founded.

Previously, the European Commission in December invoked Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, one of the two EU-founding documents – something it has never done before – in an attempt to determine whether Poland had breached the rule of law.

Source: Al Jazeera