After questioning their Polish counterpart for the fourth time, European affairs and foreign ministers from the other 27 EU states left their Tuesday meeting in Luxembourg unconvinced about Warsaw's efforts to uphold the rule of law. According to EU officials, efforts to sanction Poland over alleged rule-of-law violations would continue after the government's attempt to defend itself failed.
Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said after the General Affairs Council meeting: "Let me be very clear: The systemic threat for the rule-of-law persists. So for us to be able to say that it no longer persists, we will need some more steps from the Polish side."
The European Commission initiated for the first time the rule of law procedure against a member state for weakening democratic checks and balances at the end of last year.
At that time, the EC listed four key concerns regarding Polish reforms: they asked not to apply a lower retirement age to current judges; to remove the discretionary power of the president to prolong the mandate of Supreme Court judges; to remove the new retirement regime for judges, including the related discretionary powers of the minister of justice; and to restore the independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal.
No signs of good will by Warsaw
Despite the multiple warnings and ongoing European Court of Justice cases, Poland’s ruling nationalist government’s representative insisted that it is acting within its sovereign rights and in accordance with Poland’s Constitution in enacting the changes. Poland’s secretary of state for European affairs, Konrad Szymański, who spoke for more than an hour in defense of the reforms, did not announce any intention to change or rescind the controversial reforms.
These include empowering the Polish government to remove up to 40 percent of the Supreme Court’s judges and granting the country’s justice minister new powers to discipline judges. Furthermore, the European Union’s most pressing concern is the law on the Supreme Court, which will go into force on 3 July 2018.
Besides the EU legal concerns and growing criticism from rights groups, the Polish government is more and more isolated within the member states. This is particularly worrisome given the ongoing EU budget negotiations for the upcoming seven-year budget, beginning in 2021, and the upcoming 2019 European Parliamentary elections.
Poland isolated, EU undecided
The EU’s rule of law procedure, triggered by Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, may ultimately result in the suspension of Poland’s voting rights in the European Council. However, this so-called nuclear option would require the unanimity of the other 27 EU countries, and Hungary, an ally of Warsaw, has pledged to block such a decision.
The Warsaw government’s reluctance to address the concerns articulated by the EU highlights how the EU struggles to bring back into line member states that disobey its rights and values. Nonetheless, for now the Commission and the Council have pushed ahead with the process in an effort to maintain pressure on the Warsaw government.