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Council of Europe criticizes Poland over reform efforts

Brandon Conradis (Reuters, AP, dpa)
March 11, 2016

The human rights panel has blasted the Polish government for its attempted overhaul of the country's top court. The EU and the US have become increasingly concerned about the Euroskeptic ruling party.

Poland's Constitutional Court
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kaminski

The Venice Commission, an advisory panel for the Council of Europe, said on Friday that recent measures enacted by Warsaw endangered the country's democracy, while adding that actions taken by the previous government were also unconstitutional.

Amendments to the constitution put forth by Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party have crippled the country's top court, the panel found. The changes to the law, which were approved by the country's parliament in December, impacted the order in which court cases were heard and also required a two-thirds majority for a ruling to be considered valid. Prior to the new laws being implemented, a simple majority was sufficient.

"A high attendance quorum, the requirement of two thirds majority for adopting judgments and a strict rule making it impossible to deal with urgent cases, notably in their combined effect, would have made the [court] ineffective," the panel said in a statement. "Therefore, these amendments would have endangered not only the rule of law but also the functioning of the democratic system."

'Unconstitutional actions'

A Constitutional Tribunal ruling made a similar argument earlier in the month, but Warsaw said it would ignore that decision. Witold Waszczykowski, Poland's foreign minister, requested that the Council of Europe review the law after demonstrators took to the streets in protest against it. PiS has argued that the previous government, Civic Platform, stacked institutional bodies with its members in order to maintain influence even after the new government took power.

Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski
Poland's foreign minister had requested the panel's reviewImage: picture alliance/PAP/G. Michalowski

The Venice Commission's report acknowledged that both governments have resorted to "unconstitutional actions" to exert influence. However, it emphasized the need for the current government to roll back some of its changes.

"As long as the situation of constitutional crisis related to the Constitutional Tribunal remains unsettled and as long as the Constitutional Tribunal cannot carry out its work in an efficient manner, not only is the rule of law in danger, but so is democracy and human rights," the panel concluded.

The European Commission said it would review the report, which in turn could lead the EU to punish Warsaw for its democratic backsliding. PiS has said it would respect the findings of the Venice Commission's report, but didn't clarify what actions it would take in response to it.

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