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EU warns Poland on rule of law

December 24, 2015

The EU's executive body has urged Poland to postpone a new law that critics say threatens the rule of law. The law is controversial for instituting longer waiting periods and a higher bar for stopping legislation.

Polen Warschau Demonstration Anti-Regierung
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Keplicz

Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) faces renewed criticism after the European Union on Wednesday warned that reforms to the EU member state's constitutional court threatened to undermine the rule of law.

The European Commission sent a letter to Poland's justice and foreign ministers urging a halt to the reforms "until all questions regarding the impact of this law on the independence and functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal have been fully and properly assessed."

The EU's executive body "attaches great importance to preventing the emergence of situations whereby the rule of law in (a) member state could be called into question," according to the letter written by the body's Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans.

The letter comes as domestic opposition and international criticism over the direction of the country's democracy mounts, following the conservative PiS' sweeping success in October elections that secured it control of both houses of parliament.

The first month-and-a-half of PiS rule under its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has been marked by a contentious constitutional crisis that gained an added dimension after the lower house of parliament on Tuesday passed an amendment to change the functioning of the country's top court.

The Supreme Court as well as opposition politicians say the amendment, which is expected to easily pass the PiS-controlled Senate and be approved by the loyalist president Andrzej Duda, will paralyze the country's top court and remove checks and balances on the PiS conservative platform.

When PiS last held power from 2005 to 2007, the court stymied many of the party's reforms.

Paralzying the court

One provision of the new amendment would require at least 13 of 15 judges to rule on any case, while the current practice allows a smaller number of judges to review cases. Opponents of the amendment say the higher threshold of judges required to rule on a case will effectively slow down the already overburdened court.

Another part of the amendment requires a two-thirds majority for a ruling instead of the current simple majority. Opponents say the court will often be unable to reach a two-thirds majority, and as a result the court will not be able to rule on many cases.

The new law also requires a three- to six-month waiting period between the time a request for a ruling is made and a verdict. That compares to two weeks currently.

Concerns over the rule of law were echoed by former president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa who on Wednesday weighed in by saying that democracy was at risk and a referendum should be held to force PiS to hold early elections.

Powerful mandate

The PiS has shunned the criticism, arguing opponents are using the excuse of democracy to protect their vested interests after the right-wing party's landslide victory in October elections. Party officials say their sweeping victory gives them a mandate to institute significant change in Poland.

The crisis was triggered when the PiS forced the replacement of five judges to the 15-member court that were appointed by the Civic Platform party before it left power after 8 years.

PiS passed a law and pushed its own five loyalist judges, a move the constitutional court earlier this month found partially illegal. The PiS ignored the court's decision.

The constitutional crisis has for weeks drawn protests from supporters and opponents of PiS out onto the streets.

cw/gsw (AFP, dpa, Reuters)