Poland must undo its new disciplinary system for judges to unlock access to billions of euros of European Union aid aimed at helping revive economic growth mauled by the coronavirus pandemic, the bloc’s chief executive said on Thursday.
Poland could get up to 57 billion euros in EU recovery funds but the executive has been withholding its necessary approval for Warsaw’s detailed plan on how to spend it amid protracted and increasingly bitter feuds over democratic standards.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party had to undo its new disciplinary regime for judges, widely criticised for undercutting judicial independence.
“We want to put into that recovery and resilience plan a clear commitment to dismantle the disciplinary chamber, to end or reform the disciplinary regime and to start a process to reinstall the judges,” she said.
“I think it is doable, I hope that we will reach an agreement. But the reform part is conditio sine qua non,” she said, using the Latin term for an indispensable condition.
Separately, an organisation of EU bodies representing judges was set to vote on Thursday on expelling Poland’s National Council of the Judiciary (KRS). The European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ) was due to announce its decision at 1430 GMT.
The expulsion must be decided upon by a three quarters majority of ENCJ members. KRS head Pawel Styrna told website wp.pl he expected the motion to pass.
Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s nationalist PiS has introduced sweeping changes to the judiciary, putting judges under more government control in the EU’s largest ex-communist country and the biggest eastern market of 38 million people.
It has also restricted the rights of women, migrants and LGBT people, drawing condemnation from political opposition, the EU and the United States, rights advocates and international watchdogs for undermining democratic checks and balances.
DISPUTES WITH THE EU
In addition to the feuds over the judiciary and rights, Poland has also clashed with most other countries in the bloc on climate policies, growing increasingly isolated in the 27-nation EU.
In September the EU’s top court – European Court of Justice – ordered daily fines on Poland worth 500,000 euros for refusing to heed its earlier ruling to shut down a polluting coal mine on the Czech border.
It fined Poland a further 1 million euros a day on Wednesday for keeping the disciplinary chamber at the Supreme Court running despite it having been previously dismissed by the Luxembourg-based tribunal as violating judicial independence, a key EU rule.
The PiS has so far refused to change tack or heed the EU court orders, an extremely rare development in European affairs that led critics to sound alarm over the risk of the party taking Poland out of the bloc.
The KRS plays a key role in Poland’s judicial system as it reviews all nominations of judges. Under the government’s reforms, its members are now mostly appointed by the PiS-dominated parliament, whereas before they were chosen by judges.
The expulsion of the KRS from the EU group could intensify calls by government critics for decisive action and make it easier for those unhappy with the decisions of judges appointed under the new rules to challenge them.
Poland had already been suspended in 2018 by the ENCJ, which considered that the KRS “no longer met the condition for membership that a Council for the Judiciary must be independent from the executive and legislature”
While the expulsion would be mostly symbolic, Laurent Pech, professor of European law at Middlesex University, London, said the ENCJ decision could make it easier to challenge decisions by KRS-nominated judges as their appointments are legally defective.