Photographer: Jacek Turczyk/EPA

Poland Speeds Up Judicial Revamp, Defies ‘Dictatorship’ Outcry

Updated on
  • Ruling party seeks to increase government role in court issues
  • EU has accused Poland of backsliding on democratic values

Poland’s ruling party is accelerating a judicial overhaul that gives politicians more sway in court matters, defying criticism by its European Union partners and accusations from the opposition that it’s building a “dictatorship.”

Emboldened by rising public support following U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw last week, Law & Justice’s legislative plans are poised to push Poland deeper into conflict with the EU and raise business risks. Previous sweeping changes to courts have already triggered an unprecedented probe by the bloc’s executive, which accused Poland of “persistent” rule-of-law breaches.

Hours after the lower house of parliament passed legislation on Wednesday giving lawmakers the right to choose who sits on the National Judiciary Council, a body that decides which judges are promoted and how courts are run, the ruling party proposed revamping the Supreme Court. The overhaul proposes to give the justice minister control over the composition of the panel, whose prerogatives include approving election results.

“We’re losing an independent arbiter,” Jerzy Stepien, a former chief justice of the Constitutional Court, told private broadcaster TVN24 on Thursday. “When you go to a soccer match, you want the referee to be impartial, and democracy works the same way. Otherwise, we’re leaving western civilization.”

Nils Muiznieks, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, a European democracy watchdog, called the legislation a “major setback for judicial independence.”

Marshall Plan

The standoff is isolating Poland, the biggest net recipient of EU funds, during a crucial time when the bloc is seeking changes following the U.K.’s decision to exit. More than 250 billion euros ($285 billion) of EU aid has been or will be spent by Poland since the nation joined the bloc with other formerly communist countries in 2004.

French President Emmanuel Macron said while campaigning that sanctions should be considered as Poland benefits economically from EU membership without respecting its values. The German government is considering linking future EU funds to whether members uphold the rule of law, drawing protest from Poland and Hungary. The two nations that are under scrutiny for allegedly breaching the bloc’s democratic norms.

Such warnings aren’t denting Law & Justice’s popularity, with support for the party rising 4 percentage points to 36 percent following Trump’s visit. Backing for the two main pro-EU opposition groups, Civic Platform and the Modern Party, dropped a combined 5 points to 30 percent, according to a July 11-12 poll of 1,008 people by Kantar Millward Brown.

“Should the draft be adopted as it stands investors would be well advised to reconsider their business plans,” said Laurent Pech, professor of European law and head of the law and politics department at the Middlesex University London.

The zloty, which weakened 1.2 percent against the euro in June after six months of gains, was little changed at 4.2290 against the single currency at 2:47 p.m. in Warsaw.

Trump Praise

Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, who voiced concern over Poland’s democratic order during his visit to Warsaw a year ago, Trump hailed Poland as a nation valuing “individual freedom and sovereignty.” Law & Justice argues that its revamps seek to strengthen public control over the judiciary, which it says is run by a “caste of judges” who aren’t accountable to anyone.

“Those with a democratic mandate will appoint judges,” Deputy Justice Minister Marcin Warchol told public television TVP Info. “There is nothing better than democratic control.”

Read More: Poland’s Turn Toward Populism

The Supreme Court overhaul envisages that all of the panel’s judges, except ones selected by the justice minister, will be forced to retire a day after the new rules come into force. The court is the highest appeals authority in Poland.

On Wednesday, the assembly approved legislation that gives parliament the right to name judges to the judiciary council, which determines appointments to the nation’s 400 courts, shortens the panel’s term and gives the government control over appointing heads of courts. The bill will next be debated in the upper house, where Law & Justice also has a majority.

“This is how a dictatorship begins,” Borys Budka, a former justice minister from the opposition Civic Platform, said on Twitter.

— With assistance by Nikos Chrysoloras

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