Poland Urged by Schulz to Solve Top Court Row at EU Summit

  • EU Parliament concerned over impasse, Schulz tells leaders
  • Schulz calls on Poland to consider watchdog's recommendation

The Polish government needs to find a way out of its constitutional row and take international concerns about the erosion of its democracy into account, European Parliament President Martin Schulz told European Union leaders.

QuickTake Poland’s Populist Turn

“On behalf of the European Parliament, we call on the Polish government to find a way out of the current impasse and engage in an inclusive debate to fix the shortcomings of the latest reforms,” Schulz told EU heads of state and government at the beginning of their two-day summit in Brussels on Thursday.

The conflict began after the ruling Law & Justice party revamped the country’s top court last year, making it harder for it to overturn laws. It also stacked the court with its own justices, while President Andrzej Duda ignored a ruling that ordered him to swear in three judges picked by his political opponents.

The Law & Justice party has been trying to cement its control of the Polish state since October’s general election. The controversy has already triggered the EU’s first probe of a member state’s democracy and Standard & Poor’s first-ever credit downgrade two months ago. The Polish government has defended its strategy, saying the court’s overhaul was an internal policy issue necessary to improve the functioning of the tribunal.

U.K., Hungary Support

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told the EU summit she was saddened that Schulz decided to comment on the situation, according to two people with knowledge of the matter, and sought to reassure the leaders that her government respects democratic standards. British Prime Minister David Cameron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban offered support, said the people, who asked not to be identified as the meeting was private.

“The main principle is the double standard is not allowed in the European Union, and the double standard was against Poland and we don’t like it. Simple,” Orban told reporters on Friday, adding that he doesn’t think it’s fair to request something of one member state that is not practiced by all. “Fairness is important. More respect for Poland, that’s the Hungarian position.”

The Venice Commission, a multilateral group charged with overseeing democracy and human rights, said in a March 11 report that the overhaul of the constitutional tribunal imperiled the rule of law and called on the government to abide by the judicial rulings.

“We treat the non-binding opinion of the Venice Commission with seriousness; it will certainly be thoroughly analyzed,” Polish government spokesman Rafal Bochenek said by phone from Brussels on Thursday. “The prime minister has referred the issue to the parliament so that a solution can be worked out among all political parties.”

The situation in the eastern European country is already negatively affecting its relations with the EU, according to Roza Thun, a Christian Democrat member of the European Parliament, whose party in Poland is in opposition to the government.

“Poland’s position in Europe is weakening,” said Thun, who was the head of the European Commission’s representation in Warsaw in 2005-2009. “That’s not the way to go. The lack of respect for democratic standards may also have economic implications and I can only hope that EU funding for Poland does not suffer because of that and that we don’t lose on politically sensitive dossiers.”

The European Commission, the 28-nation EU’s executive arm, is due to discuss at the developments in Poland in the beginning of April after it opened in January a “preliminary” dialogue on a future disciplinary procedure. The EU Parliament counts on the Brussels-based commission to continue the dialogue with Poland under the rule-of-law mechanism and to verify that the Venice Commission recommendations are fully enacted, Schulz told the summit.

“An independent constitutional court is part and parcel of a system of checks and balances,” he said. “The current situation means that these checks and balances are now in limbo.”

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