The EU has formally warned Warsaw that if it doesn't reverse its overhaul of the country's highest court it will incur sanctions, possibly suspending voting rights. Few expect a quick resolution.
Wednesday's unprecedented warning issued by the European Commission is part of a long procedure that could see Warsaw having its voting rights suspended in the European Council of Ministers, the EU's highest decision-making body.
The 28 commissioners agreed during the body's weekly meeting on Wednesday morning to send an "opinion" to Warsaw that gives Poland two weeks to respond to the warning, and the commissioners said they will recommend Warsaw solve the problems identified within a fixed time limit.
"We have decided to send a rule-of-law opinion to the Polish authorities," European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said in Brussels.
The Commission said the Polish government must remove what it called a "systemic threat" to the rule of law.
"Despite our best efforts we have not been able to find a solution to the main issues that concern us," Timmermans said following five months of talks with the Polish government.
Wednesday's opinion follows talks in Warsaw last week with Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo when Timmermans said he was confident of eventually finding "a sustainable solution" to the issue. But he also said the EU did not want to interfere in the domestic politics of a member state.
Timmermans did not mention possible of sanctions, which are a last resort in a procedure introduced in 2014 and have never been used against any of the 28 EU member states. Hungary is thought likely to oppose sanctions, which require the unanimous approval.
The Polish government, which came to power in October, has effectively stymied the work of the Constitutional Tribunal after interfering with the mechanisms used to select its 15 members and technicalities connected with voting majorities.
The Catholic-Nationalist PiS (Law and Justice) government has argued that the previous center-right Civic Platform (PO) government had sought, before losing power, to fill the court with representatives who would help stall any radical legislation PiS - if elected - might seek to implement.
The standoff has subsequently brought Poland to a point of social and constitutional crisis, with opponents of PiS coalescing around the Movement for the Defense of Democracy (KOD), a kind of proxy opposition supported by PO.
The government has also incurred the displeasure of the Council of Europe, a human rights group, and the United States. The Venice Commission, a body of constitutional experts and part of the 47-country Council of Europe, in April found that the reforms "undermine democracy, human rights and the rule of law."
Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski in the Polish Sejm, or parliament
The European Commission launched an investigation in January to see if Poland's changes violated EU democracy rules and merited punitive measures.
The Commission also expressed concerns about changes to the rules governing public service broadcasters. In January, the president signed into law new rules on the management and supervisory boards of the Polish public television broadcaster (TVP) and public radio broadcaster (PR), placing them under the control of the finance minister, rather than an independent body and giving the government powers to dismiss the existing supervisory and management boards. It also issued a formal objection on Wednesday to judicial reforms in Poland.
The government responds
PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has said the party will not back down on the issue. His position as strongman within the party and ongoing popular support for radical change in the country - which remains high - hinges to a large extent on the outcome of the standoff. Kaczynski seems to have benefitted so far from the EU's apparent procrastination in its attempts to exert real pressure on the government.
The Commission's written opinion "brings nothing new" because the government knew it was coming, according to Poland's deputy foreign minister, Konrad Szymanski, adding that Warsaw is "ready for consultations[...]but that does not mean that we can agree to any specific solution."
Szydlo, meanwhile, accused Brussels of violating Poland's sovereignty and vowed that Warsaw would never bow to any EU ultimatum on the Constitutional Tribunal.
"An opinion is an opinion, and it doesn't have any influence on decisions being taken in Warsaw," she told Polish media. She also called on the opposition to help end the confrontation.
Beata Mazurek, spokesperson for the PiS parliamentary group, meanwhile, told Polish media that the Commission "is trying to interfere a little in Poland's internal affairs."
Euroskeptic Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro also expressed surprise at the decision.
"Mr. Timmermans and his closest employees know very well that the government showed great elasticity and the will to find a compromise," Ziobro said, adding that the tribunal and the opposition had refused to work towards a solution.
"A compromise needs two sides," he said.