WASHINGTON - The executive arm of the European Union has launched unprecedented disciplinary proceedings against Poland, contending that Warsaw's controversial judicial reforms undercut the independence of Polish courts.
European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands told reporters in Brussels that 13 laws adopted by Poland in the past two years created a situation in which the Polish ruling majority "can systematically politically interfere with the composition, powers, the administration and the functioning" of judicial authorities.
He said "the rule of law is under threat" in Poland, violating a key underpinning of EU principles, judicial independence.
Timmermans gave Warsaw three months to withdraw the measures, but Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro said despite EU condemnation of the laws, the "reform" of its judicial system would continue.
Poland's right-wing Law and Justice party began making the changes after taking over the government in 2015, saying they were necessary to combat corruption and overhaul a judicial system that was rooted in the country's communist past.
Poland's new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said last week, "I am firmly convinced that sovereign states, and Europe must be a Europe of sovereign states, have an absolute right to reform their judicial systems."
A spokeswoman for the ruling party, Beata Mazurek, said the commission's action "has no merit. It is, in our opinion, a purely political decision." She said it may be related to Poland's refusal to accept Muslim migrants fleeing wars and strife in the Middle East.
The European Commission action could, at least in theory, lead to a suspension of Poland's voting rights at the European Council, although that would only be possible after a lengthy administrative review of the two-year-old dispute and votes by the 28-nation EU membership against Poland.
In the first stage of the review, at least 22 member states would have to "determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach" of the rule of law by Poland's adoption of the laws affecting the independence of its judiciary.
Any actual sanctions against Poland's EU voting rights would require a unanimous EU vote, aside from Poland, and Polish ally Hungary has already said it would veto such a move.
With the possibility of actual sanctions remote, the EU has been looking for other ways to force Poland to change the new laws, possibly by linking EU funding to Warsaw for infrastructure projects if it believes EU values and rulings are not being respected.