Politics

Poland must undo judicial overhaul to get EU COVID aid, commission chief says

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BRUSSELS/WARSAW — Poland must undo its new disciplinary system for judges to unlock access to billions of euros of European Union aid aimed at helping revive economic growth mauled by the coronavirus pandemic, the bloc’s chief executive said on Thursday.

Poland could get up to 57 billion euros in EU recovery funds but the executive has been withholding its necessary approval for Warsaw’s detailed plan on how to spend it amid protracted and increasingly bitter feuds over democratic standards.

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European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party had to undo its new disciplinary regime for judges, widely criticized for undercutting judicial independence.

“We want to put into that recovery and resilience plan a clear commitment to dismantle the disciplinary chamber, to end or reform the disciplinary regime and to start a process to reinstall the judges,” she said.

“I think it is doable, I hope that we will reach an agreement. But the reform part is conditio sine qua non,” she said, using the Latin term for an indispensable condition.

Separately, the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ), an organization of EU bodies representing judges, voted on Thursday to expel Poland’s National Council of the Judiciary (KRS).

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“The KRS does not safeguard the independence of the Judiciary, it does not to defend the Judiciary… in a manner consistent with its role as guarantor, in the face of any measures which threaten to compromise the core values of independence and autonomy,” the ENCJ said in a statement.

Since coming to power in 2015, Poland’s nationalist PiS has introduced sweeping changes to the judiciary, putting judges under more government control in the EU’s largest ex-communist country and the biggest eastern market of 38 million people.

It has also restricted the rights of women, migrants and LGBT people, drawing condemnation from political opposition, the EU and the United States, rights advocates and international watchdogs for undermining democratic checks and balances.

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The KRS plays a key role in Poland’s judicial system as it reviews all nominations of judges. Under the government’s reforms, its members are now mostly appointed by the PiS-dominated parliament, whereas before they were chosen by judges.

The expulsion of the KRS from the EU group could intensify calls by government critics for decisive action and make it easier for those unhappy with the decisions of judges appointed under the new rules to challenge them.

DISPUTES WITH THE EU

In addition to the feuds over the judiciary and rights, Poland has also clashed with most other countries in the EU on climate policies, growing increasingly isolated in the 27-nation bloc.

In September the EU’s top court – European Court of Justice – ordered daily fines on Poland worth 500,000 euros for refusing to heed its earlier ruling to shut down a polluting coal mine on the Czech border.

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It fined Poland a further 1 million euros a day on Wednesday for keeping the disciplinary chamber at the Supreme Court running despite it having been previously dismissed by the Luxembourg-based tribunal as violating judicial independence, a key EU rule.

The PiS has so far refused to change tack or heed the EU court orders, an extremely rare development in European affairs that led critics to sound alarm over the risk of the party taking Poland out of the bloc.

The government in Warsaw so far rejected such a scenario of a “Polexit,” and the PiS remains popular at home due to its socially conservative policies mixed with a left-wing economic platform.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told his fellow EU leaders earlier this month Warsaw would not bow to EU “blackmail” but was ready to look for solutions to fix running disputes with the Brussels-based Commission, which enforces shared European laws.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Alan Charlish Editing by Frances Kerry)

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