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Polish judge attacks govt. over conflict with EU

Jo HarperJune 10, 2016

The head of Poland's Constitutional Tribunal, Andrzej Rzeplinski, has criticized the government over its stance in the ongoing conflict with the European Union. Warsaw and Brussels remain in a standoff.

Polen Warschau Verfassungsgerichtshof Richter Andrzej Rzeplinski
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Supernak

"The Polish government is a key part of the problem and is in deep conflict with the EU," Rzeplinski told German newspaper "Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung" in an interview published on Friday.

"We will overcome this crisis, but at what price," Rzeplinski said, adding: "We have already lost a lot of credibility."

The tribunal, which decides whether laws passed by parliament are in line with the constitution, is at the center of an ongoing row that has sparked anti-government protests within Poland and international rebuke from the European Commission and the United States.

An end in sight?

On Thursday, leader of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said a bill to resolve the standoff put forward by PiS contained "90 percent of the demands of the Venice Commission."

The Venice Commission, an advisory group to rights body the Council of Europe, in March urged the Polish government to publish a key ruling by the tribunal - a step needed to make the verdict binding - in order to end a political and legal deadlock between Warsaw and Brussels.

The commission warned that the rule of law, democracy and human rights were in danger as long as Poland was embroiled in a constitutional crisis and "as long as the Constitutional Tribunal cannot carry out its work in an efficient manner."

People take part in the march organised by Polish Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD) in Warsaw on June 4
People take part in the march organised by Polish Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD) in Warsaw on June 4Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kaminski

European Union to act?

A resolution on the constitutional crisis in Poland will be passed at the July 4-7 session of the European Parliament, parliament spokesman Jaume Duch Guillot said this week.

The resolution will be devoted to the controversial constitutional court reform that allegedly violates the rule of law as well as a number of civil rights issues, notably new police legislation and measures regarding control of state media.

Crisis, what crisis?

In late 2015, Polish authorities adopted a set of controversial media and constitutional court laws, including amendments to the law on the Constitutional Tribunal which impact judges' independence, that have been widely criticized both in Poland and abroad.

"The original issue over the appointment of the judges by the previous government could have been solved as the Constitutional Tribunal itself rule," Nicholas Richardson, a lawyer in Warsaw, told DW.

"The passage of time would also have given PiS the opportunity to replace Rzeplinski and a number of other judges to have a more balanced - in PiS' eyes - tribunal. By acting as they have done the government has managed to fall out with a large proportion of Poles and the EU," Richardson said.

The Constitutional Tribunal recognized the unconstitutionality of new legislation in its March ruling, which the Polish government refused to publish to prevent the court's ruling from being considered legally binding.

In mid-January, the European Commission began a preliminary review of whether the new laws introduced by the Polish government breached the European Union's founding principle on the rule of law.

When push comes to shove

Poland also hosts a NATO summit in July, when it hopes to secure bigger rotations of the bloc's forces on its territory.

An open disagreement with the United States over the Constitutional Tribunal threatens to undermine those hopes.

"Poland will pay a price. NATO member states are going to be less keen to accept a greater permanent NATO presence in Poland if the Polish government is felt not to be fully committed to those values - the rule of law, democracy - the defense of which underpins the NATO mission," Richardson said.

Refugee crisis

Rzeplinski was also critical of the government's tough stance on the refugee crisis. "It was a decision of the European Council and Poland accepted opening its borders to refugees."

During the Chechen war Poland, he said, had received 90,000 refugees and it had been "a normal thing." The current refugee crisis is about "our common European destiny," he said.

"The government increasingly gives the impression of being in a hurry to gather power in its own hands with little regard for the law. This is not a positive message. Irrespective of whether the EU follows the rule of law opinion with further action, Poland is suffering from the damage to its reputation," Richardson concludes.