The top European Union court on Monday struck down more elements of Poland's sweeping judicial overhaul for violating the bloc's democracy tenets, adding to pressure on the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party which faces an election this autumn.
Poland, the largest ex-communist EU country, has lost its reputation as a poster child of democratic transition, as well as access to billions worth of EU funds in bitter rule-of-law battles with the liberal West since PiS came to power in 2015.
On Monday, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said that publishing online declarations of judges' memberships of associations, non-profit foundations or political parties violated their right to privacy and could be used to sway them.
The Luxembourg-based court listed that element along with several others in the PiS judicial overhaul that were damaging the independence of judges, and hence undermining the rule of law.
"The Polish justice reform of December 2019 infringes EU law," a court statement said. "The value of the rule of law is an integral part of the very identity of the European Union."
A hardline deputy justice minister of Poland, Sebastian Kaleta, swiftly dismissed the ruling as "farce."
The case was brought by the EU executive European Commission, which holds the bloc's budget and is tasked with enforcing joint laws in all 27 member states. The lawsuit was backed by Belgium, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands.
The ruling is final, meaning Poland must now amend the elements of its judicial set-up assessed by the ECJ as illegal. Should Warsaw fail to do that, the ECJ could impose further financial penalties.
In 2021, the ECJ ruled that the broader system introduced by the PiS to police Polish judges also went against EU laws. It later imposed daily fines of 1 million euros ($1.1 million) for Warsaw's failure to dissolve it before lowering them to 500,000 a day last April after Poland made some amends.
Polish EU Affairs Minster Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek said that some of the issues pointed to by the ECJ had already been addressed. "This challenged legal status has undergone significant changes, it has been amended," he told reporters.
PiS critics at home and abroad, however, say the wide-ranging changes have exposed Polish courts and judges to direct political meddling. They also denounce the PiS for restricting the rights of women, LGBT people and migrants.
Upset with the PiS' track-record on democracy, the European Commission blocked Warsaw's access to 35.5 billion euros of COVID stimulus and billions more in funds meant to help poorer member countries catch up on development.
Eyeing the looming election, opposition parties said a protest they organized in Warsaw to galvanize support gathered half a million people last Sunday. But the PiS's mix of extensive social spending and firebrand nationalism has long proven attractive in the country of 38 million people, a NATO ally bordering Ukraine where Russia is now waging a war.
Opinion polls suggest PiS would still come first in the election expected this October or November, though might fall short of parliamentary seats to rule alone.