EU seeks daily fines against Poland over controversial judicial reforms

Brussels aims to penalize Warsaw until it improves functioning of Polish Supreme Court, suspends laws said to undermine judicial independence

In this file photo taken October 5, 2015 a woman walks by the entrance to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg (AP/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
In this file photo taken October 5, 2015 a woman walks by the entrance to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg (AP/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union moved Tuesday to force Poland to comply with the rulings of Europe’s top court with plans to seek daily fines against the nationalist government in Warsaw in a long-running dispute over Poland’s judicial system.

In a rare move, the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, said it wants the European Court of Justice to “impose financial penalties on Poland to ensure compliance” with one of the tribunal’s orders from July.

The commission, which supervises the respect of EU laws, said it wants the Luxembourg-based court to impose “a daily penalty” on Poland until it improves the functioning of the Polish Supreme Court and suspends new laws that were deemed to undermine judicial independence.

The point of contention is Poland’s Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court, a body that the right-wing ruling party gave the power to discipline judges. Many Polish judges view the chamber as a tool to pressure judges to rule in favor of the governing authorities. In July, the European Court of Justice ordered it to be suspended but it is still functioning.

To date, while Poland’s ruling party has filled the ranks of the top courts, there are many lower court judges who act independently and have issued rulings that go against the government’s interests.

The commission did not seek an exact fine, but in the only other similar case — an illegal logging dispute also involving Poland in 2017 — the court ordered the Polish government to pay 100,000 euros ($119,000) a day until it complied. It’s unclear how long the European Court of Justice might take to rule.

Police remove one of several protesters who had blocked the entrance of the country’s constitutional court in an act of civil disobedience in Warsaw, Poland, August 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

The EU’s executive body also launched the first step in new legal action against Poland for not complying with a separate European Court of Justice decision that the country’s rules for disciplining judges doesn’t conform with EU law. Brussels said if Warsaw doesn’t respond satisfactorily within two months that it will take the case back before the court.

In a tweet, European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova said “the rulings of the European Court of Justice must be respected across the EU. This is a must to build and nurture the necessary mutual trust between Member States and citizens alike.”

In Warsaw, a deputy justice minister, Sebastian Kaleta, accused the EU of carrying out “acts of aggression.” Another deputy justice minister, Marcin Romanowski, tweeted that “Brussels has launched another unlawful attack at a time when Poland is defending the EU’s eastern borders” — a reference to attempts by Belarus to send migrants into the 27-nation bloc.

Legal observers see some of the justice policy changes imposed by Poland’s right-wing government as an attempt to undermine the power of EU laws within the country and even step away from the bloc. Poland joined the EU in 2004, agreeing to abide by its rules and regulations.

Concerns over democratic backsliding in Poland are also holding up the country’s access to billions of euros in European money to help revive its economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, on May 24, 2021. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP, File)

Last week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that nobody has the right to lecture his country on democracy, as talks with Brussels on access to the recovery fund dragged on.

“We fought for the rule of law and democracy during the terrible years of communism, but we have a much longer tradition of democracy and we do not want to be instructed by anyone in Western Europe about what democracy is, what the rule of law is, because we know best,” Morawiecki said on Facebook.

Earlier this year, Morawiecki asked Poland’s top court to rule on whether the Polish Constitution or EU law has primacy in the central European nation.

The Constitutional Court has been delaying its judgment, with the next session now set for September 22. Should it give precedence to Polish law, the ruling would pose a threat to the EU’s legal order.

The commission insists that EU law has primacy over the national legal orders of the 27 member countries.

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