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Brussels warns Warsaw democracy is under threat

May 18, 2016

The Polish government has until Monday to show it is moving towards fixing its draconian law on the country's high court. A failure to act will prompt the EU executive to move to hold Poland to account.

Polen Demonstration Anti Regierung Warschau
Image: Reuters/K.Pempel

What sounded like a dire warning from Brussels for Poland to address concerns about the country's rule-of-law by next week, or face consequences, was received in Warsaw with apparent nonchalance.

Foremost among the European Commission's (EC) concerns is a new law by the conservative Polish government that effectively guts the independence and authority of the judiciary, in particular the country's highest court - the Constitutional Court.

The EC warned that if the tribunal "is prevented from fully ensuring an effective constitutional review, there can be no effective scrutiny of compliance with fundamental rights of legislative acts."

Poland Protests - People Power on the March

In other words, Poland's highest court is being blocked from providing constitutional checks and balances on the country's legislative and executive branches. The EC has given Warsaw until Monday to show that progress is being made to fix the situation.

If Poland's conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), which rules alone after winning outright majorities in both chambers of parliament in last year's elections, does not respond adequately, the Commission could act under the "rule of law framework," which is aimed at protecting EU values like the rule of law, democracy, equality and the respect of human rights.

EU questions Polish democracy

The EC launched an unprecedented probe in January to see if the PiS's so-called "reforms" violated the EU's democracy rules and warranted punitive measures.

"If there is no significant progress by May 23, then the First Vice-President (Frans Timmermans) has been empowered to adopt the draft rule of law opinion," the commission, the EU's executive arm, said in a statement.

But Polish officials appear to be in no hurry to act.

Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said Poland needs "much more time" to solve the crisis and no breakthrough should be expected by Monday.

He said he does not see the EC warning as an ultimatum, adding that Warsaw is in constant "friendly" discussion with the Commission.

"We certainly need more time," Szymanski said. "For example, legislative changes require parliamentary work; so it seems that Monday can be seen as an auxiliary date, not an ultimatum for sure."

But if Poland continues to drag its feet in remedying the situation, the Commission, which enforces the EU's treaties, could take action. The EC might recommend ways for Poland to fix the problems and set a deadline.

If Warsaw's intransigence persists, the EC could even impose sanctions against Poland, and the country could lose its EU voting rights.

Earlier this month more than 200,000 Poles took to the streets to protest their government's actions.

bik/bw (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)