BRUSSELS – The European Union on Wednesday launched legal action against Poland over recent decisions by one of the country’s top courts which have raised troubling questions about the 27-nation bloc’s legal order.
In October, Poland’s constitutional court ruled that Polish laws have supremacy over those of the EU in areas where they conflict. When countries join the EU, as Poland did in 2004, they must bring their laws into line with the bloc’s regulations. The European Court of Justice is the supreme arbiter of those rules.
In launching its legal action, the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, said that it sees two constitutional tribunal decisions this year as “expressly challenging the primacy of EU law.” The commission also raised doubts about the court’s legitimacy.
Announcing the move, Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said the rulings “are in breach of the general principles of autonomy, primacy, effectiveness and uniform application of Union law and the binding effect of rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union.”
Gentiloni said the commission, which proposes EU laws and supervises the way they are applied, considers that the Polish court “no longer meets the requirements of an independent and impartial tribunal established by law as required by the (EU) treaty.”
“The European Union is a community of values and of law and the rights of Europeans under the treaties must be protected, no matter where they live in the union,” he told reporters.
The legal action is just the latest in a series of confrontations between Brussels and the right-wing government in Warsaw over the state of the country’s justice system, rule of law standards and media freedoms.
Earlier this year, the commission sought fines to force Warsaw to improve the way the Supreme Court works and suspend new laws said to endanger judicial independence. The ECJ ordered Poland to pay $1.2 million a day to prevent “serious and irreparable harm” to EU legal order and values.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki rejected the commission's objections, and notably that Brussels would question the constitutional court’s independence.
Morawiecki said the court "not only fulfils all independence criteria, but it is a Constitutional Tribunal that stands guard of the constitution and ensures that it remains the highest law of the Republic of Poland,” according to Polish news agency PAP.
Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said the step would help transform the EU into a “federal state” in which nation states have less sovereignty, something Poland's ruling party strongly opposes.
“The logic of today’s position of the European Commission is obvious. It is about incapacitating the Polish state and Polish democracy,” Ziobro said.
Still, critics of Poland’s government hope the ruling can be effective in halting the erosion of democratic norms. Aside from seeking to impose political control over the courts, in part by suspending judges, Poland's right-wing ruling party is also seeking to silence an independent television broadcaster.
The first step of the legal action involves the commission sending a “letter of formal notice” requesting a reaction and information from Poland. Warsaw is required to reply in detail within two months. Countries that fail to comply with EU court rulings can face hefty fines and possibly a loss of voting rights.
John Morijn, a law professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, welcomed the commission action.
He told The Associated Press that it clarifies that Poland's constitutional court, which has become now a “political body,” threatens some basic EU principles. He said it means the tribunal should no longer be considered a real court and that Polish citizens’ right to a fair trial is “under threat.”
Michal Wawrykiewicz, a lawyer with Free Courts, a Polish initiative working to preserve judicial independence, said the move was “extremely important.”
While it did not come as a surprise, he said, it would “block the effectiveness" of the constitutional court's actions and be “an excellent instrument” that lower Polish courts could use to ignore its rulings.
Vanessa Gera reported from Warsaw.