The European Union has stepped up its rule-of-law fight with member state Poland on Monday when the bloc’s highest court confirmed that Warsaw had refused to comply with EU rules on judicial independence for which it has already lost over half a billion euros in fines.
The European Court of Justice delivered a ruling on Monday, declaring that Poland’s 2019 justice reform violated EU law. The European Commission had raised concerns regarding the lack of independence and impartiality in the Polish Supreme Court.
In a statement, the court affirmed the Commission’s action and emphasized that the rule of law is a fundamental aspect of the European Union’s identity and is expressed through legally binding obligations for member states. The court determined that Poland failed to meet these obligations.
The ruling drew widespread condemnation and criticism, with the court stating that the measures adopted by the Polish legislature were incompatible with guarantees of access to an independent and impartial tribunal. One of the contested provisions required judges to disclose their affiliation with associations or political parties, allowing such information to be made public. The ECJ ruling pointed out that these provisions exposed judges to potential undue stigmatization.
The dispute over the functioning of the Supreme Court is just one of several disagreements between the right-wing government in Warsaw and EU institutions. The Polish government argues that the EU is undermining its sovereign right to make independent decisions. EU institutions, however, maintain that Poland, under the populist Law and Justice party, has been moving away from the EU’s principles of the rule of law.
The focus of the current dispute revolves around the independence of Polish Supreme Court judges in reviewing EU law. Recently, both the United States and the EU’s top justice official criticized Polish plans for another law that could restrict political opponents from holding public office without proper legal recourse. The EU threatened to take action if it becomes evident that such a law undermines democratic standards.
Criticism is not limited to EU entities alone. Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people participated in an anti-government protest in Poland’s capital, expressing their frustration with officials whom they believe have eroded democratic norms and raised concerns about the country’s path towards autocracy. The organizers estimated the march’s participation to be around 500,000 people, making it one of the largest protests in recent decades.
In the ongoing standoff between Brussels and Warsaw surrounding Monday’s ruling, Polish authorities have already incurred approximately 550 million euros in fines since October 2021 when the daily fine system of 1 million euros was implemented. The daily fines were halved in April. Additionally, EU authorities are withholding the release of approximately 35 billion euros in pandemic recovery funds as part of the legal standoff.
Following the collapse of the Soviet empire, Poland, along with several other Central and Eastern European nations, joined the EU. They were expected to serve as models of thriving Western liberal democracies after emerging from autocracy. However, critics argue that Poland, along with Hungary, is regressing and moving towards one-party authoritarian rule.