Poland Passes Law That EU Says Threatens Country's Democracy

The new bill gives the ruling nationalist party extensive powers over the courts.

Poland’s upper house of Parliament on Saturday passed a sweeping and controversial judicial bill despite massive nationwide protests and the threat of EU sanctions.

The new legislation gives the nationalist ruling party extensive control over the nation’s court system, a move which critics say brings into question the country’s judicial independence. Polish President Andrzej Duda, who has veto power, must now sign the bill for it to become law.

After the bill was unveiled last week, thousands of people protested across Poland’s major cities in multi-day demonstrations to oppose the measures. On Saturday, protesters reportedly filled the streets chanting “traitors!” and “disgrace!”

Once the bill is signed, the ruling Law and Justice Party, or PiS, will have the ability to force the resignation of all of Poland’s top judges and appoint its own members to the Supreme Court.

Opponents of the move argue that it will demolish judicial independence and separation of powers in the country, marking a major shift for a ruling government that has already been accused of pursuing an illiberal agenda.

In the lead up to the vote, European Union officials repeatedly warned Poland that the proposed reforms to the judiciary represented a threat to the rule of law and threatened repercussions if they proceeded.

After the bill passed the lower house of Polish parliament, European Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans issued a strong statement urging the government to reconsider and saying that its recent actions “defy European values and standards.”

“Subjugating the courts to the governing party in the way proposed by Law and Justice (PiS) will ruin the already tarnished view of Polish democracy,” Timmermans said in the statement.

People protest against the proposed judicial legislation in Warsaw on July 20.
People protest against the proposed judicial legislation in Warsaw on July 20.
Agencja Gazeta / Reuters

Timmerans earlier this week floated the possibility that the EU would use Article 7 for the first time in the bloc’s history if Poland did not avert its course. The article allows the union to pursue sanctions against a member state if that country is said to be committing fundamental rights violations.

In Poland, past presidents, activists and rights groups were among those to speak out against the judicial reforms, raising concerns about the erosion of laws and freedoms in Poland.

Opposition lawmakers also fiercely contested the bill, resulting in heated arguments in parliament.

At one point, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski took issue with a statement from an opposition politician that claimed Kaczynski’s brother ― former President Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash 7 years ago ― would never have approved of the legislation. Kaczynski angrily shouted at the chamber, calling his opponents “scumbags” and telling them to not “wipe your treacherous mugs with my late brother’s name.”

But despite the political opposition and public pressure, the PiS was able to push the bill through with its parliamentary majority.

Leader of Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, center, attends a debate before a vote on the bill calling for an overhaul of the Supreme Court.
Leader of Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, center, attends a debate before a vote on the bill calling for an overhaul of the Supreme Court.
Agencja Gazeta / Reuters

The changes to the judiciary, if approved by the president, are set to consolidate even more power in the hands of PiS, which took office with a slight parliamentary majority in late 2015.

Since then, the party has made changes to the Constitutional Tribunal ― a body that can rule laws unconstitutional ― and curbed the independence of public broadcasters and civil society groups.

Poland has also clashed with the EU over the country’s refusal to take part in a refugee resettlement plan that would more equitably divide asylum-seekers among member states. As a result of Poland’s refusal, the EU is currently seeking legal action against the state.

That rift is part of a greater divide within the bloc as governments including Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary come into conflict with Brussels as they embrace increasingly nationalist policies. Although the EU has attempted to put pressure on these countries to adhere to their treaty obligations, the mechanisms at its disposal are often convoluted or ineffective.

It is unlikely that the EU would be able to remove Poland’s voting rights over its judicial reforms, for instance, because Hungary would be able to veto such a motion and has indicated its willingness to do so.

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