The European Commission yesterday has yet again criticised Poland for endangering the rule of law and potentially undermining democracy. Although it could result in sanctions against the country, the reaction from members of the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been dismissive.
The move is the latest in a series taken by European Union (EU) institutions after the populist Eurosceptic Polish government overhauled the country’s Constitutional Tribunal at the end of last year. Critics alleged those reforms were a deliberate power grab designed to remove checks on government power.
The move marks the first time the European Commission has accused a member state of undermining democracy, serving as a warning to the new, right wing PiS government. It is intended to encourage the country’s leaders to engage further in the “intensive dialogue” which began in mid-January, in order to find solutions acceptable to the EU and avoid potential punishment.
The news followed from the first move made in January, which was a preliminary assessment of the situation. Under the ‘Rule of Law Framework’ that governs the process, if matters a not satisfactorily resolved, the official second stage is the issue of a ‘Rule of Law Recommendation’. In the third stage the Commission monitors the implementation of recommendations.
If the recommendation is not met, the European Commission could use Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union to fine Poland or withdraw the country’s right to vote on EU laws. For now the Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans has called for “dialogue” rather than setting out sanctions. He said:
“The rule of law is one of the foundations of the European Union. There have been constructive talks which should now be translated into concrete steps to resolve the systemic risk to the rule of law in Poland. The Opinion adopted today presents our assessment of the issues at stake, building on the dialogue which started in January. On this basis we stand ready to continue the dialogue with the Polish authorities.”
Poland’s reaction to the move may expose the EU’s ability to force legislative changes on member states. The most stringent punishments would require support from other countries, and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (pictured above, with Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydlo) has already made it clear he believes Poland is being treated unfairly.
The initial response from Poland’s leaders has been dismissive. Prime Minister Szydlo told the Polish tabloid newspaper Fakt:
“The Opinion is an opinion, it has no impact on the decisions that will be taken in Poland. This is a Polish problem and we have to solve it.”
Next week a group appointed by the PiS government to review the situation will present a report on the constitutional crisis in the Polish parliament. On the back of that Members of Parliament will then draft a proposal on the functioning of the constitutional court.
According to EUobserver, Foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski told Polish radio he had not even looked at the Commission’s Opinion, saying:
“It came in yesterday, I forwarded it to the Prime Minister and the President. I may have the chance to read it in the coming days.”