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EU court orders Poland to suspend supreme court retirements

October 19, 2018

Warsaw must "immediately suspend" the legal changes that force its Supreme Court judges to retire, according to the EU's top court. Judicial independence in the country is "under threat."

Toga of the Judge of the Supreme Court
Image: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/P. Twardysko

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has demanded that the Polish government halt an initiative forcing dozens of Poland's Supreme Court judges into early retirement.

"Poland must immediately suspend the application of the provisions of national legislation relating to the lowering of the retirement age for Supreme Court judges," the EU's top court said on Friday.

The Luxembourg-based court also ordered the suspension be applied with "retroactive effect" to Supreme Court judges already in retirement. 

Read more: Lech Walesa: Poland's current leaders 'are either traitors or complete fools'

The EU's executive body, the European Commission, took Poland to court in September over the judicial reform, which changed the retirement age of judges from 70 to 65. The age cap violated the rule of law, the commission said.

The overhaul would force 27 out of 72 Supreme Court members to retire, including its chief, Malgorzata Gersdorf. The Polish president would be able to grant a five-year term extension to a judge upon the judge's request.

Warsaw vows response

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party says the changes are necessary to a justice system they say is controlled by an untouchable "caste" of judges steeped in communist-era mentality.

Goverment critics, however, see the reform as a further attempt by the right-wing party to tighten its grip on power. The move prompted rallies across the country in July. Judge Gersdorf has called the move a "purge" and refused to step down.

On Friday, Gersdorf said she was "pleased" by the news from Luxembourg.

"Personally, I am pleased that we have been heard, but I am not pleased about the fact that my country's government didn't do this sooner, and that we had to take them to an European court," she said.

Read more: Protest staged in Poland as President Duda signs judicial reform into law

Commenting on Friday decision, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his government would "certainly respond to it."

"We will see what these (EU) institutions are proposing. When we take them into consideration, several possibilities will be analysed," he said.

However, Poland's Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro signaled that his country would accept the ECJ decision.

"We are part of the European Union and we will respect the EU's laws," he said.

A final verdict on the Polish judicial reform is expected at a later date. The ECJ could impose fines if it rules that Poland did breach EU law.

PiS heading to a vote

In December 2017, the European Parliament triggered the so-called Article 7 procedure over the judicial reform. The procedure, which had never been invoked before, could lead to Poland's voting rights being suspended. This is only possible if all other EU members vote in favor of it, however, and Hungary's Viktor Orban has already announced he would not endorse the measure.

Read more: Poland and the EU... It's complicated

It is possible the dispute could also see member states cut funding allocated to Poland in the next EU budget, which starts from 2021. Poland is the biggest recipient of EU handouts for infrastructure and other projects.

The PiS faces key local elections on Sunday, with the ruling conservatives projected to snatch around 34 percent of the vote. This would put them well ahead of their main rivals from the centrist-liberal Civic Platform, who are polling at 24 percent.

The row with Brussels could play badly for the PiS party ahead of the elections, as the vast majority of Poles, including the PiS voters, are pro-Europe, says Poland correspondent for Germany's public broadcaster ARD Jan Pallokat.

"You should not forget that we are in final stages of a very important election," he told DW. "Europe is a very sensitive thing for the PiS party."

In Poland, the Supreme Court is also in charge of validating election results.

Mateusz Morawiecki on Conflict Zone

dj/amp (AFP, Reuters)

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