The European Commission has launched a “rule-of-law” investigation into Poland’s new legislation concerning its Constitutional court and media. The probe could eventually lead to the suspension of the country’s voting rights within the European Union.
On Wednesday, the Commission decided to carry out a preliminary assessment of the controversial laws recently adopted in Poland that, according to EU officials, could violate the Union’s core democratic principles.
This move marks the first step in a procedure that could eventually lead to Poland’s suspension from the EU Council of Ministers under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, although the Commission is not expected to go as far as imposing such a sanction.
Announcing the Commission’s decision, the body’s First Vice President, Frans Timmermans, who is in charge of fundamental rights, stressed that the data available so far suggests that “binding rulings of the constitutional tribunal are currently not being respected,” as reported by the Irish Times.
“There are measures that are being taken by the newly elected Poland legislature that affect its functioning. Today we have decided that the commission will carry out a preliminary assessment on this matter under the rule-of-law framework,” he said, as quoted by the Irish Times.
The changes concerning the functioning of the Polish Constitutional Court could “potentially limit the leeway for action in the court and increase political influence on the workings of the tribunals,” he added as quoted by AP.
Timmermans also said that Poland is “an extremely important” EU member state, while stressing at the same time that the EU should ensure that its fundamental principles are respected throughout the Union.
“The purpose of the approach we have launched is to clarify the facts in an objective way, assess the situation in more depth, and start a dialogue with Polish authorities without pre-judging any possible next steps,” the Commission’s first vice president stated, when commenting on the reasons for the decision to launch its enquiry into Poland.
The Commission’s latest move has escalated tensions between Poland and the EU. Polish government has already criticized EU officials for excessive interference into the country’s internal affairs.
Poland’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Konrad Szymanski, said in Brussels that criticism of Poland was “beyond proportions,” warning that the EU Commission could be “perceived as not impartial.”
“In the future, please have more restraint in instructing and reprimanding the parliament and the government of a sovereign, democratic country,” Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro wrote to Timmermans, as quoted by AP. In response to the letter, Timmermans said on Wednesday that Poland “clearly” wants “a discussion with us [the EU].”
Speaking in the Polish parliament on Wednesday, the country’s Prime Minister, Beata Szydlo, denied any violation of democratic norms, stressing that “democracy is alive and well in Poland” and emphasizing that the current government’s policy is supported by the citizens that brought the party to power.
At the same time, Amnesty International praised the Commission’s decision, calling it “an important step by the EU towards upholding human rights in the region,” as reported by the Irish Times.
“The willingness of the commission to use the rule-of-law framework is a positive step towards a more serious approach by the EU to speak out and hold its own member states to account on their human rights records,” Iverna McGowan, head of Amnesty in Brussels, said.
Within the “rule-of-law framework,” Brussels has the ultimate option of suspending a member state’s voting rights within the bloc and deprive it of access to EU funds if a “systemic threat” to the rule of law and the Union’s democratic principles is exposed, Reuters reports.
The new mechanism was introduced in 2014, after the EU was accused of failing to defend liberal values in a row with Hungary. A threat of a similar sanction “worked in the case of Orban’s overreach in Hungary,” said Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the EU parliament’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, calling on Timmermans to “do the same before the situation in Warsaw gets out of control,” AP reports.
Following the election victory of the right-wing Law and Justice party in October, Poland introduced several laws that are deemed by many to be aimed at consolidating power and limiting the judicial freedom of its Constitutional Court, to which the new government also appointed five new judges.
Last week, the country’s president also provoked criticism by signing a new law giving the government control over the state media.
The adoption of the government’s new policies has prompted several massive protests in Poland, with people accusing the government of infringing upon democratic principles.
Several key figures in the Polish media resigned in an act of protest, including the heads of three TV channels of the Polish public broadcaster, TVP, and the head of its human resources department, claiming that they would be laid off in any case if the new law passed.
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