Constitutional experts warn Poland’s latest proposed bill introducing new disciplinary rules for judges could further erode the country’s judiciary. The EU is also speaking out, and has tried to intervene.
Despite the European Commission taking action against Poland and Hungary for judicial reforms that risk “a serious breach of the values on which the Union is founded,” EU lawmakers have called for more pressure on the two member states.
“The EU’s discussions with Poland and Hungary have not yet led these countries to realign with the EU’s founding values,” the European Parliament said in a statement on Thursday, after noting that “the situation in both Poland and Hungary has deteriorated” since initiating the Article 7 procedure against them.”
In a resolution, the Parliament urged the Commission to ensure that Article 7, which could ultimately strip a member state of its EU voting rights, is properly applied with “expedited infringement procedures” and “interim measures.” MEPs also want the provision of EU funds to both countries dependent on whether they respect the rule of law.
The failure to make effective use of Article 7 “continues to undermine the integrity of common European values, mutual trust, and the credibility of the Union as a whole,” said the resolution.
According to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, Poland’s recent judicial disciplinary panel bill would “curtail the freedoms of expression and association of judges.” The Venice Commission, which advises EU member states on constitutional questions, warned Thursday that the amendments to the laws on the judiciary — which would ban judges from being members of professional bodies and civil society groups — “may further undermine judicial independence.”
The proposed bill, now under discussion in the Senate, is part of a broader reform of the judiciary which aims to increase governmental control. The Venice Commission has urged the Polish parliament not to ratify the bill.
How strong is Poland’s opposition?
Liberal lawmakers in Poland have lambasted the proposed law as an effort by the conservative populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) government to silence critical judges. The bill is now up for debate in the Senate, the upper house of Poland’s parliament.
PiS commands an absolute majority in the lower house, allowing it push through bills at breakneck speed, often overnight and without proper scrutiny. But since last October’s parliamentary election, when the party lost its majority in the Senate, this option is no longer possible in that chamber, meaning the Senate debate on the controversial bill will be closely watched to gauge the strength of Poland’s opposition.
Senate Speaker Tomasz Grodzki, a member of the centrist opposition Civic Coalition, has praised the Venice Commission for taking the controversial bill “so seriously,” and said the backing of international institutions was immensely important. The publication of the Commission’s official statement will help make the Senate debate “more varied and interesting, giving the house a better foundation to reach its decision,” he said.
Grodzki has been in touch with constitutional experts from the Venice Commission for many weeks.
And when Vera Jourova, the European Commission vice president for values and transparency, called on Warsaw to heed the Venice Commission, Grodzki immediately pledged to “evaluate all legal drafts that could potentially harm Polish rule of law or the judiciary.”
He also invited the constitutional experts to visit the Polish capital, a move for which he was severely criticized.
The governing PiS did not make time to meet with the experts while they were in town. Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz — of PiS — said the Senate had no right to engage in foreign policy, arguing that Grodzki’s invitation to the legal experts was “deeply problematic” from a legal perspective.
Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland’s justice minister and a fellow party member, accused the Venice Commission of harboring “anti-Polish interests” and said Grodzki may go on trial. Right-wing nationalist media outlets have accused the Senate speaker of taking bribes when he was a surgeon.
The Polish government has also reacted angrily to a letter sent by Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, to Grodzki, in which she urged the Senate to reject the bill. Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek criticized the letter, dismissing it as an “unprecedented interference in Poland’s internal affairs” and saying it undermines the independence of the Polish parliament.
For years, the governing PiS party has stubbornly rejected any EU criticism. Likewise, Warsaw was unimpressed on Tuesday when the European Commission filed an urgent petition calling on the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice, to order the suspension of the Polish Supreme Court’s new disciplinary chamber. The Commission has said the disciplinary chamber could “further intimidate” Polish judges. The European Court is expected to decide on the matter within days.
According to the Polish constitution, the Senate has 30 days to react to any law passed by Poland’s lower house. The Senate can propose changes and thereby slow down the ratification process, or it also reject the bill outright. In that case, however, it would simply be once again passed back to the PiS-controlled lower house. But with the help of international backers, Poland’s opposition is hoping it will be able to partially block the government’s proposed judicial reforms.