- Protests continue after senate approves laws seen as serious threat to democracy
The Polish senate defied international condemnation early on Saturday and mass demonstrations in Warsaw to approve a law that allows the firing of its current supreme court judges, except those chosen by the justice minister and approved by the president.
Protests continued in Poland. on Saturday. But despite increasing dismay at developments, the European commission knows it needs time to build support before moving towards what is regarded as the nuclear option – of suspending a country’s voting rights in the EU for the first time. Last week the first vice-president of the EU’s executive, Frans Timmermans, warned that Brussels was “very close” to triggering the sanction, which would spark a major confrontation with one of the EU’s most populous member states.
The legislation passed on Saturday is only one of a series of contentious legal reforms being pursued by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) which have prompted thousands to take to the streets in protest against what many claim is the death of Polish democracy.
The new law gives the president the power to issue regulations for the supreme court’s work. It also introduces a disciplinary chamber that, on a motion from the justice minister, would handle suspected breaches of regulations or ethics. The law now requires only the signature of the president, Andrzej Duda, who was previously a member of PiS, to become binding.
With Brexit negotiations in full flow, there is unease in Brussels at taking any action that could be seen as heavy-handed in relation to a member state.
With the EU engaged in a difficult balancing act, it is understood Timmermans will suggest at a meeting of commissioners on Wednesday that Poland be given until the next general affairs council of EU ministers, on 25 September, to respond to claims that its measures are a systemic threat to the rule of law. While Poland has ignored the commission when it has previously set deadlines on this issue, the move would at least give the commission the summer months to garner the support required to impose tough sanctions.
The EU believes, however, that it will be in a position to launch two infringement proceedings against Poland as soon as this week, in an attempt to slow the country’s drift towards what Brussels regards as authoritarianism.
The first, it is understood, will highlight that the government’s insistence on the early retirement of judges is discriminatory towards women, as the age thresholds are different for the sexes under the new laws.
The second infringement proceeding focuses on the failure of Poland to give its people effective access to justice, by undermining the independence of the courts. Both legal arguments have been deployed by the European commission before in the case of Hungary, and forced the country to rethink.
Jarosław Kaczyński, head of Poland’s ruling party, claims the judiciary in Poland still works to a communist-era model and that the system needs “radical changes” to become efficient and reliable. The Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, says the legislation is an internal matter and the government will not bow to any foreign pressure.
About 200 protesters have gathered in front of Duda’s holiday home in Jurata, on the Baltic coast, to demand that he does not sign the bill.
The president has 21 days to sign it and is not expected to do so before his meeting on Monday with the head of the court, Małgorzata Gersdorf. Two other bills, on a key judicial body and on regular courts, also await Duda’s signature.
On Friday the US state department urged all sides to “ensure that any judicial reform does not violate Poland’s constitution or international legal obligations and respects the principles of judicial independence and separation of powers,” and urged dialogue.
So far Duda has not accepted an invitation for talks on the issue from the European council president, Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister. Speaking to Polish broadcasters, Tusk repeated his readiness for talks and said he was a “little disappointed” there had been no meeting. “Poland’s president should be concerned about a situation that is, let’s say, serious,” he said.
The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said on Saturday that Budapest would fight to defend Poland. “The inquisition offensive against Poland can never succeed, because Hungary will use all legal options in the European Union to show solidarity with the Poles,” he said.