WARSAW – Poland's constitutional court on Wednesday delayed issuing a decision on whether Polish or European Union law has primacy in the country, a ruling that could affect the future relationship of the EU member nation with the rest of the bloc.
Judge Krystyna Pawlowicz, a former lawmaker who has called the EU flag a “rag" and expressed euroskeptic views, had been expected to deliver the ruling of a five-judge Constitutional Tribunal panel that is considering whether EU treaties conform with the Polish Constitution.
But soon after a court hearing opened, Pawlowicz delayed the proceedings until May 13.
The court, which is largely made up of judges nominated by Poland's conservative ruling party, agreed to examine the matter at the request of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
Morawiecki asked for the review in March after the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that EU law takes precedence over the Polish Constitution. That came amid a larger dispute over changes to the Polish judicial system, initiated by the Law and Justice party, which the EU views as an assault on judicial independence.
Polish government spokesman Piotr Müller said Wednesday that he expected the Constitutional Tribunal to find that the Polish Constitution is above European law.
Law and Justice has made a number of changes to the operation of Poland's judiciary since taking power in 2015. It argues reforms were needed to improve the efficiency of the court system and to fight corruption. Critics, however, see the changes as an attempt by Law and Justice to gain control in a way that erodes the democratic balance of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
On Tuesday, retired judges from the court expressed concerns that the procedure could be a step toward Poland's eventual departure from the EU. They argued that a euroskeptic like Pawlowicz should not have been involved in the decision.
“A judge who, as an active politician, has repeatedly and violently expressed her negative attitude toward the European Union and Poland's membership in the Union, should not sit on the bench, let alone preside at the hearing,” the retired judges wrote.
Countries that join the EU are supposed to bring their laws and regulations in line with other member nations in areas ranging from competition and trade to justice affairs and corruption, among many others. Poland, a former communist state, joined the bloc in 2004, and the economic growth and travel freedoms that have come with membership have made EU membership very popular.
Opponents of the Law and Justice government accuse it of creating conditions that will one day lead to Poland being forced to leave the EU.
The Polish government argued in March that the EU court had overstepped its authority by declaring the superiority of European law over the Polish Constitution.
The specific issue that triggered the request for a constitutional ruling concerns Poland's Supreme Court. Law and Justice created a new body at the Supreme Court with the power to suspend judges, called the Disciplinary Chamber.
Critics say the chamber is a tool the ruling party can use to bring independent judges in line, while the Supreme Court itself considers it illegal. The EU's Court of Justice ruled that the Disciplinary Chamber is not a legal body under EU law and must be suspended.
The issue of whether national or EU law has primacy has come up in the 27-member bloc before, including last year when Germany’s highest court cast doubt on key eurozone stimulus efforts.
In reaction to that matter, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, which is the guardian of EU treaties, argued that European law always takes precedence.
Von der Leyen said in a written explanation to the European Parliament that European Community law “has primacy over national law and that rulings of the European Court of Justice are binding on all national courts."
“The final word on EC law is always spoken in Luxembourg,” where the EU's top court is based, she said. “Nowhere else.”
Lorne Cook in Brussels and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.