Image European Commission threatens to sanction Poland, strip voting rights over far-right judicial reforms [Image: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel]

European Commission threatens to sanction Poland, strip voting rights over far-right judicial reforms

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The European Commission moved Wednesday to trigger Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, a process which strips EU voting rights from member countries that violate the EU’s core values. Core or “common” values inherent in the treaty are found in Article 2 and include, “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”

The EU’s main issue with Poland is a series of legal reforms which are said to strip power from the country’s judiciary and put more power into the executive.

Image Thousands of anti-government demonstrators gathered in front of the supreme court in Warsaw on Sunday in protest against the government’s plans. Photograph: Czarek Sokołowski/AP
Thousands of anti-government demonstrators gather in front of Poland’s Supreme Court, July 16, 2017 [Image: Czarek Sokołowski/AP]
The Commission issued a statement that read, “Despite repeated efforts, for almost two years, to engage the Polish authorities in a constructive dialogue … the Commission has today concluded that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland.” The statement clarified that by triggering Article 7(1), “The European Commission is taking action to protect the rule of law in Europe,” and that “[j]udicial reforms in Poland mean that the country’s judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority.” The EU statement concludes that “[i]n the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law …”.

“The facts leave us no choice,” said Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans. The 28 member EU has never triggered Article 7, established over 17 years ago, which is often referred to as the “nuclear option.” The Commission tweeted today, “It is with a heavy heart that we have concluded that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki responded to the news on twitter:

On Dec. 1, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, passed legislation enabling the government to remove 40% of the judges on Poland’s Supreme Court by lowering the retirement age of judges from 70 to 65 years. The decision on which judges over 65 could remain will reside with Polish President Andrzej Duda.  The legislation also reduces the threshold for the appointment of new judges from three fifths of the Parliament to a simple majority. The resulting vacancies would then likely be filled by PiS, a far-right, national-conservative, and Christian democratic political party, that currently enjoys a comfortable majority in the Polish Parliament. 

Under the new laws the Supreme Court, with the support of the prosecutor-general, who is also the justice minister, will now be able to conduct an “extraordinary appeal” and reopen final judgments by lower courts, including any case adjudicated since Poland’s present constitution was adopted in 1997 .

In November, a group of 28 NGOs warned, “the introduction of these amendments will mean that Poland will definitively cease to be a democratic state of law. If independent general courts cease to exist, nothing will stand in the way of restricting the civic rights and duties written into the Constitution in the future without having a sufficient majority.”

PiS maintains that these legal reforms are necessary, stipulating that Polish courts are saturated with judges left over from Poland’s Communist era. However, the opposition party, Civic Platform, alleges that the far-right government is attempting to place loyalists inside the country’s courts and judiciary councils.

The EU has contended that by the actions of PiS, “the executive and legislative branches have been systematically enabled to politically interfere in the composition, powers, administration and functioning of the judicial branch.”

“We do not dispute the right of a government, a nation, to reform its judiciary,” Timmermans said to reporters in Brussels. “But if you reform the judiciary you need to abide by your own constitution and EU law.”

This is not the first time Poland has antagonized Brussels in 2017 either. In May, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo announced that the country would no longer accept refugees from overcrowded camps in Greece and Italy, which all other EU states–Hungary excluded–have committed to.

Even after Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron announced last week that they support removing EU voting rights from Poland, it is still unlikely that Poland’s vote with actually be taken away. In order for voting rights to be removed, the European Commission must unanimously agree to it. That proves a difficult task, as Hungary has already vowed to vote against the measure, and the Czech Republic shares Poland’s stance against accepting refugees.

However, Article 7 is not France and Germany’s only option. Debate is now underway for the 2018 EU budget, and because Britain–the 2nd wealthiest country in Europe–is expected to withdraw from the EU in 2019, substantial cuts are anticipated. 

Over the past year, EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger has been outlining plans for tougher “conditionality” for structural funds. Currently, the European Union has plans to distribute over $500 billion by 2020 in structural funds, which are to be invested into less developed areas of Europe. Poland’s GDP is $470 billion. Conditionality would tie these distributions to the implementation of certain reforms.

PiS’s political situation inside of Poland is unlikely to be seriously impacted by the EU move. According to polling, PiS is the second most popular party amongst voters in all of Europe (Fidesz, the nationalist party which governs Hungary, is first). 

Poland’s National Independence Day marchers. (Photo via Reddit)

The popularity of PiS’s right-wing policies in Poland is reflected in the country’s larger culture. For decades, the National Independence Day marches, which take place in November, have been marred by violent confrontations between police and right-wing protestors. However, for the last two years the marches have been largely peaceful, suggesting that solidarity is growing amongst Poles.

LIMA CHARLIE NEWS, with Diego Lynch

Lima Charlie provides global news, insight & analysis by military veterans and service members Worldwide.

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