Polish Premier Vows to Push On With Court Revamp After Veto

  • Pledge follows veto of draft laws criticized as undemocratic
  • President Duda says he believes ‘wise’ reform will be passed

Poland’s prime minister vowed to redouble efforts to clamp down on “unaccountable” judges after the president vetoed parts of a judicial overhaul that touched off debate in the European Union over how to confront members who flout democratic values.

In a blow to the Law & Justice party that backed his presidency, Andrzej Duda rejected bills to replace Supreme Court judges and revamp the Judicial Council that makes key personnel decisions. Tens of thousands of Poles had protested nationwide for eight days in defense of court independence, while the EU threatened Poland, the bloc’s largest beneficiary of development funds, with sanctions.

Andrzej Duda on July 24.

Photographer: Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

“The veto has been treated as an encouragement for those who fight to keep this unjust system in place,” Premier Beata Szydlo said late Monday in a televised statement that was broadcast at the same time as a speech by Duda. “In the elections, Poles trusted Law & Justice, and we fulfill our promises.”

The partial veto -- Duda signed into law a bill giving the justice minister the right to nominate local-court heads -- erects at least a temporary obstacle for Law & Justice. Since taking power in 2015, the party has challenged the EU’s democratic principles and sparked warnings about a drift toward authoritarian rule. The U.S. State Department had criticized the judiciary legislation, with Senator John McCain on Saturday calling it “one step back for democracy.”

EU Colors

In a rare visual sign of commitment to the EU, Szydlo gave her televised speech on Monday evening while in front of both Polish red-and-white flags and the bloc’s blue-and-gold emblem, which was absent from a number of the premier’s previous addresses.

She said her government, which has vowed to take the nation of 38 million people out of “mainstream Europe” and return it to its conservative Catholic roots, wouldn’t “submit to pressure” to back off and Duda’s rejection of the laws had only slowed necessary changes. The courts should be put under the people’s power in the same way that parliament and the cabinet are, Szydlo said.

The zloty snapped a four-day drop and bonds gained after the vetoes. The currency jumped as much as 0.8 percent against the euro on Monday, after slumping 1.5 percent last week, before ending the day 0.1 percent stronger. It advanced a further 0.2 percent to 4.2556 against the single European currency as of 10:56 a.m. in Warsaw.

‘Wise’ Reform

When announcing his vetoes, Duda said he still saw the need for court reform and called on lawmakers to rework the laws in the next two months. After meeting Szydlo, he said he “believes” the amended bills will be approved quickly and “this wise and pro-social reform of the judiciary will be a fact.”

Pushing ahead with the reform risks deepening a standoff with the European Commission, which said last week it was near recommending the implementation of Article 7, a procedure that could pave the way for Poland to lose its EU voting rights. Having been granted more than 250 billion euros ($285 billion) from the bloc since joining in 2004, Poland is already subject to the first-ever inquiry into democratic behavior.

The commission is monitoring the situation “very closely” and will address the matter Wednesday, spokesman Margaritis Schinas said after Duda’s announcement. “Things are changing even as we speak.”

Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity movement that helped bring down communism, welcomed the vetoes. But he called Duda’s approval of the law on lower courts “a bad decision” and urged Poles to continue protests. A crowd of several hundred people gathered Monday evening at the Supreme Court singing the national anthem.

“The president’s veto doesn’t mean the end of the story,” Jan Grabiec, spokesman for opposition Civic Platform said by phone. “We’re expecting quite an aggressive response to Duda’s veto from Law & Justice.”

— With assistance by Andra Timu, Ladka Mortkowitz Bauerova, Piotr Bujnicki, and Wojciech Moskwa

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