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EU Ministers Emphasize Their Concerns About Rule of Law in Poland

Polish Minister for European Affairs Konrad Szymanski, right, and the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, attend an EU General Affairs Council meeting in Brussels, Belgium, Sept. 18, 2018.
Polish Minister for European Affairs Konrad Szymanski, right, and the European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, attend an EU General Affairs Council meeting in Brussels, Belgium, Sept. 18, 2018.

Poland's right-wing government sought to explain itself to its European Union peers Tuesday for the second time in three months amid concern about changes to the judiciary that the EU believes undermine its courts' independence.

Polish Minister for European Affairs Konrad Szymanski said upon entering the hearing before EU ministers in Brussels that he would defend changes to the judiciary brought by the euroskeptic PiS government. He is facing a tough task.

In a joint declaration delivered by German Minister of State Michael Roth in the name of France and Germany at the start of the hearing, the two biggest EU countries said that despite numerous discussions already held with Warsaw, concerns about the rule of law in Poland have not dissipated.

"On the contrary, since July 3 and the implementation of the new retirement regime for Supreme Court judges, the situation has become more urgent than ever," delegation sources quoted Roth as telling the hearing.

The hearing is part of the bloc's procedure, called Article 7, used against countries that violate fundamental rights and the rule of law. The process first allows EU governments to formally warn a country accused of violating fundamental rights but could end in suspension of its EU voting rights.

Sanctions on Hungary

Poland's situation echoes that of Hungary, which the European Parliament last week sanctioned for flouting EU rules on democracy, civil rights and corruption.

The process was triggered by the European Commission because the Polish government has enacted laws forcing into early retirement many Supreme Court judges, and it's trying to replace them with its own nominees.

As a result, Poland was suspended Monday from the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ), which decided the Polish council was no longer independent because it was now appointed by politicians, rather than judges as before.

The forced retirement of judges has been criticized by EU institutions, human rights groups and the opposition as going against the rule of law. The Supreme Court itself has asked the European Court of Justice, the EU's top court, to rule on whether the early retirement was legal, but an ECJ ruling may take months.

In the meantime, the Polish Supreme Court ruled that the proposed PiS changes should be frozen until the ECJ ruling is made. However, President Andrzej Duda, who is backed by the PiS, has moved to appoint new Supreme Court judges nonetheless.

"As we observe, in the last weeks, first steps are being taken to replace the Supreme Court judges," Roth said. This was problematic, he said.

"We hope that Poland acts constructively and does not take actions which cannot be changed afterwards," he said.

Many judges replaced

The PiS has already replaced many judges at the Polish Constitutional Tribunal and the heads of regular courts. Since coming to power in late 2015, it has also tightened its grip on public media and controls over nongovernmental groups.

The legal paralysis of the Polish Supreme Court poses additional difficulties because it is the institution that declares the validity of elections in the country of 38 million people. Poland is due to hold local elections in October.

In August, the European Commission took a formal infringement procedure against Warsaw to a second level, giving Poland one month to reverse the
changes or face a trial at the ECJ.

But Warsaw has made no concessions and the commission is expected to file a lawsuit against it at the ECJ on Wednesday.

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