EU takes legal action against Poland over rule-of-law dispute

Poland says the EU’s decision reflects a trend towards ‘bureaucratic centralism’ in Brussels that ‘has to be stopped’.

The Polish flag waves behind the EU flag.
Poland has two months to respond to a formal letter setting out the grounds of the infringement procedure [File: Ints Kalnins/Reuters]

The EU has launched legal action against Poland for ignoring the bloc’s law and undermining judicial independence, prompting a sharp rebuke from Warsaw.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Wednesday said the EU’s decision reflected a trend towards “bureaucratic centralism” in Brussels that “has to be stopped”.

The step escalates a long-running feud between Warsaw and Brussels over Poland’s perceived backsliding on EU democratic norms.

Brussels is already withholding approval of coronavirus recovery funds for Poland over the dispute.

EU Commissioner of Economy Paolo Gentiloni said on Wednesday that the infringement proceedings targeted Poland for breaching the primacy of EU law and for deciding that certain articles of EU treaties were incompatible with Polish laws.

Attack on sovereignty

Poland’s Deputy Justice Minister Sebastian Kaleta hit back by calling the EU announcement “an attack on the Polish constitution and our sovereignty”.

Former Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, an MEP for Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, said, “This is no longer a legal dispute, it is an attack on the Polish constitution and the foundations of Polish statehood”.

Morawiecki said he “deeply” disagreed with the European Commission’s move, adding that it showed a lack of understanding of the distinction between EU and national competences.

Morawiecki said the legal action showed that “a trend for … bureaucratic centralism is unfortunately progressing in Brussels but it has to be stopped.”

“More and more EU member states are seeing that there should be a limit to competences – what the European Union can decide on and what the Polish state can decide on,” he said.

Wojciech Przybylski, the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight, a current affairs magazine, told Al Jazeera from Warsaw that there seems to be no way out of the impasse at the moment.

“In order to get out of the deadlock, which results for now in suspension of EU funds for Poland, the Polish government would need to change the judicial law and provide bigger independence for the court system, but the part of the government is blocking that,” he said.

“And there is no way for the EU to blink on this issue.”

Persistent defiance

Legal action from Brussels was expected given persistent defiance from Poland’s Constitutional Court to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The ECJ has already ruled against Poland for implementing a mechanism to lift the immunity of judges in the Constitutional Court and to sack any not deemed acceptable by the parliament dominated by the Law and Justice party.

The European Commission is also upset about a 2019 Polish law that prevents Polish courts applying EU law in certain areas, and from referring legal questions to the ECJ.

Gentiloni told a news conference that the Polish moves “breached the general principles of autonomy, primacy, effectiveness and uniform application of Union law and the binding rulings of the Court of Justice”.

The European Commission, he said, considers the Polish Constitutional Court “no longer meets the requirements of an independent and impartial tribunal established by law, as required” by a fundamental EU treaty.

He said Poland had two months to respond to a formal letter setting out the grounds of the infringement procedure.

In the event of no satisfactory reply, the matter could be sent to the ECJ.

While there is no option to kick Poland out of the EU for not respecting the bloc’s laws, it could be hit with daily fines for non-compliance.

But Poland and Hungary – another eastern EU member accused of undermining democratic norms – have a pact mutually shielding each other from more extreme EU punishment, such as removing their voting rights in the bloc.

Hungary, too, faces delays in receiving EU coronavirus recovery money because of its own defiance of EU rules.

Both countries have threatened to block EU business in retaliation for Brussels’ actions.

Gentiloni said he was “confident” the disputes with Warsaw and Budapest would not degenerate into a “tit for tat” cycle – but cautioned “we can’t exclude anything.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies