EU court, legislature up pressure on Poland over rule-of-law

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union is increasing pressure on member nation Poland, with the 27-nation bloc’s top court ruling Tuesday that the country’s right-wing government has undermined judicial independence and the EU parliament’s major groups seeking to deny pandemic recovery funds until Warsaw meets rule-of-law standards.

Relations between EU institutions and Poland have become increasingly acrimonious since the conservative Law and Justice party gained power in 2015 and started revamping Poland’s judiciary. Most other EU members have argued the nation has veered away from the bloc’s rule and law principles.

Ruling on the Polish justice minister’s powers to endorse judges for high criminal courts and to end their terms without proper explanation, the European Court of Justice said that “EU law precludes the regime in force.”

The court said the system whereby the justice minister is also the public prosecutor general and may terminate at any time a judge’s term without stating a reason impedes the independence of the judiciary and gives reasonable doubt about the judge’s impartiality.

Taken together, the justice minister’s authority means judges “are not provided with the guarantees and the independence which all judges should normally enjoy in a State governed by the rule of law.”

Meanwhile, the major groups in the European Parliament, representing an overwhelming majority, urged the EU’s executive commission to withhold some 36 billion euros ($41 billion) until the nation improves its democratic standards.

“A government that denies the primacy of EU law and violates the principles of the rule of law cannot be deemed trustworthy of fulfilling the commitments and obligations under our legal instruments,” the leaders of the five groups, including the Christian Democrat, Liberal, Green and Socialist parties, said in a statement.

They demanded that the European Commission “refrains from approving the Polish recovery plan until all conditions” are met.

Their criticism also tied in with Tuesday’s court ruling. “Polish courts of all instances have demonstrated that they cannot ensure the right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law, as recognized also by the Court of Justice,” the parliamentary groups said.

The Court of Justice already raised the stakes in the fight over judicial independence and the primacy of EU law last month when it fined Poland $1.2 million a day to prevent what it called “serious and irreparable harm” to the EU’s legal order and values.

The court imposed the penalty after a weeklong war of words in which Poland told the EU to stay out of its judicial affairs and other EU nations insisted that Warsaw could not continue to get huge EU subsidies while disregarding the bloc’s democratic principles at will.

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