Poland Set for Collision Course With EU Over Democracy Probe

  • Rules provide stable basis for court to function, cabinet says
  • Government critical of EU Vice President Timmermans’ comments

Poland brushed off concerns from the European Union that it’s backsliding on democracy and the rule of law with a revamp of its constitutional court, setting itself on a collision course with allies who are trying to stop the anti-establishment tide threatening the bloc.

In a response to recommendations made by the European Commission in December to restore checks and balances, the government said the disputed changes it’s made to the Constitutional Tribunal had strengthened rule of law. If the commission deems Poland’s answers as unsatisfactory, it has the right to use Article 7 of the bloc’s treaty to potentially seek sanctions including the suspension of voting rights. Poland expects its response to end the probe, its foreign minister said.

“This case is closed,” Witold Waszczykowski told Radio 3 on Tuesday. The government’s response was “a courtesy” to show “we’re in dialog” with the commission, he said.

Joining the global backlash of political forces seeking to overturn a world order decades in the making, Poland’s ruling Law & Justice has spurned the liberal, multicultural values that uphold the EU in a push to return the country of 38 million to its traditional roots. Since winning a 2015 election, it has overhauled the constitutional court in moves that the tribunal ruled illegal. It has also fired journalists from state-run news outlets and pushed public media to support its policies. Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said last year he was ready to fight EU and NATO partners “to make Poland a truly sovereign nation.”

Read More About Poland’s Clash With the EU

The cabinet has also threatened to punish opposition lawmakers, who enjoy immunity, if it deems they broke laws in protests earlier this year. The last time the EU gave Poland several months to respond to its guidance on how to restore the constitutional court’s authority or face losing its voting rights, Warsaw replied at the last minute by accusing bureaucrats in Brussels of being stupid. It’s the first ever probe into rule of law in an EU member state.

“The current political argument around the Constitutional Tribunal can’t be the basis of claiming that the rule of law is threatened in Poland,” the government in Warsaw said in the response Monday. Strengthening the rule of law, including building “a stable basis for the functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal, is the government’s most important goal,” it said.

The response is unlikely to receive a positive assessment by the commission, with Vice President Frans Timmermans repeating last week that “we will not drop this issue.”

‘Politically Motivated’

In the statement, Poland’s government criticized Timmermans’ comments as “politically motivated” and a “blatant example of violation” of the “objectivity and mutual respect for sovereignty and national identity” that it expects.

Any move to strip Poland of its voting rights on the EU stage is unlikely to succeed because it would require unanimity among the bloc’s 28 countries. Law & Justice’s biggest ally in the EU, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has signaled he won’t support such a measure. That has not reduced the criticism against the Baltic Sea country.

“It is time for the European Commission to acknowledge that the dialog with Poland has failed and move on to the next steps and recommend resorting to Article 7,” Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society European Policy Institute, and Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to the Commission Feb. 16.

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