Poland revokes EU court powers, testing bloc’s legal order
Poland’s rule-of-law standoff with the European Union escalated with the country’s constitutional court openly defying a key pillar of the 27-nation bloc’s legal system and the EU’s top tribunal striking down a major judicial reform.
The EU Court of Justice said on Thursday that Poland’s disciplinary regime for judges isn’t compatible with EU law. A day earlier, the Warsaw-based Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the EU court’s interim orders on judicial matters weren’t compatible with Polish law and therefore not enforceable in the country.
The conflicting verdicts add to concerns that may push the EU’s executive to slash the aid that Poland receives from the bloc. They also show growing uncertainty about the country’s ability to continue to abide by EU rules and remain part of its legal system, a key factor for investors in its €502 billion economy.
The zloty weakened 0.3% against the euro by 10:26 a.m. in Warsaw, the second-worst performance among 31 major currencies tracked by Bloomberg.
Last month, EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders warned that attempts to challenge the primacy of the bloc’s legal system could destroy the union.
The cases highlight the extent of the nationalist government’s six-year drift away from the European mainstream, which have triggered battles with Brussels over everything from judicial independence to LGBTQ rights.
The legal disputes have rekindled a debate about Poland’s long-term political trajectory and whether its EU conflicts will lead it to eventually leave the club. The government has branded the idea of a Polexit as “political fiction” and cast itself as the protector of national rights.
“We’re on the road to a legal Polexit,” the country’s human rights ombudsman Adam Bodnar said. Following Wednesday’s ruling, Poland “won’t listen to the EU Court of Justice” and will “do as it pleases with judicial reforms,” he said.
The EU could start punishing rule-of-law offenders this year with a new sanctions tool, said Vera Jourova, EU vice president in charge of values. One option will be to freeze funds from an EU’s 1.8 trillion-euro ($2.2 trillion) pandemic stimulus package before they’ve been disbursed.
The EU’s executive has questioned Poland’s failure to implement last year’s EU court order and earlier this year brought another lawsuit over the nation’s judicial reforms and the harm they pose to the court’s independence.
In its verdict on Thursday, the EU court said the disciplinary regime “could be used in order to exert political control over judicial decisions or to exert pressure on judges with a view to influencing their decisions.”
EU judges this week issued a second order against Poland to “immediately suspend” its disciplinary regime for judges. The commission in March said this new case was necessary “to prevent the aggravation of serious and irreparable harm inflicted to judicial independence and the EU legal order.”
The EU has for years been battling against Poland and Hungary over numerous rule-of-law issues that have so far, led to little by way of concrete punishment. The pair are the only two EU nations subject to a so-called Article 7 procedure, which could lead to the suspension of their EU voting rights. Poland also faces legal action from the EU as soon as on Thursday over its crackdown on sexual minorities after regions and towns implemented so-called “LGBTQ-free zones.”
The biggest net recipient of EU aid, Poland has said it’s reforming an inefficient court system and that the bloc doesn’t have jurisdiction to vet its revamps.
Poland’s ruling party has been accused by international judicial watchdogs of unlawfully taking over the Constitutional Tribunal, whose recent verdicts have largely towed the government’s line on issues that raised concern in Brussels.
Bodnar, the ombudsman, said that five judges in Warsaw may effectively undo the results of Poland’s 2003 referendum to join the EU, when 78% of voters backed membership on the agreed terms, including jurisdiction from the EU’s top court.
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