The EU executive has given Poland an official warning that changes to its constitutional court endanger the rule of law, in an unprecedented decision that could lead to sanctions against the country.
Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European commission, said he had written to the Polish government warning that recent alterations to the workings of Poland’s highest court posed “a systemic risk to the rule of law”.
The publication of a formal opinion ratchets up pressure on Poland and marks the first time that the EU executive has criticised a member state under its rule-of-law procedure.
The Polish government reacted furiously to the move and accused Brussels of blackmailing Poland in an attempt to force the country to take more Syrian refugees.
Soon after Poland’s ultra-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in October 2015, the Polish parliament passed a law allowing the government to appoint the judges of its choosing to the highest court and not recognise those chosen by its predecessor, the liberal Civic Platform party.
Legal experts advising the council of Europe have concluded that the changesbreach the rule of law, democracy and human rights. If Poland refuses to back down, it could face the ultimate sanction of being stripped of EU voting rights, although Brussels is likely to face opposition from other EU member states if it went down that path.
Timmermans said he had spoken to the Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, on Tuesday night and was pleased that she wanted their dialogue to continue.
Rejecting accusations of interfering in Polish politics, Timmermans said he was “dispassionate and legal” and that the commission had a duty to uphold the rule of law.
“The European Union is built on common values enshrined in the treaties,” he said. “Making sure the rule of law is observed is a collective responsibility of all EU institutions and all member states.”
But Poland’s justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, claimed the commission was using the rule of law issue to force Poland to “take tens of thousands of refugees and migrants”.
“The commission intervenes when it is convenient for the commission,’’ he said, accusing Brussels of blackmailing Poland to force the country to take more than the 7,600 Syrian migrants agreed.
“This confirms that the European commission has been influenced by [Poland’s] political opposition to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state,” he said.
Along with other central European countries, Poland opposes attempts by Brussels to set refugee quotas and fine countries that won’t take in asylum seekers.
Parliamentary spokesman Rafal Bochenek said Poland could solve its constitutional crisis without support or pressure from Brussels. The government’s goal was to end the dispute over the constitutional court as soon as possible, he said, adding that a revised law might be adopted in July at the latest.
But senior figures in PiS have previously said the constitutional tribunal crisis could be solved only by creating a new constitution for Poland. The government has for more than two months refused to publish in an official gazette an opinion issued by the constitutional tribunal on the changes imposed on it by the government. This means the court’s critical ruling is not valid.
Ahead of Wednesday’s decision, the head of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, condemned the EU action as a “made up” procedure. Speaking to pro-government Do Rzeczy, he said the decision “can be challenged in the court of justice of the European Union at any moment”.
The government has remained publicly defiant in the face of pressure from Brussels and the US, including a series of high-level visits. The EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, is due to visit Warsaw on Thursday.
Warsaw has two weeks to respond to the commission’s opinion. If it fails to meet the EU’s concerns, the commission could spell out specific steps it wants the Polish government to take. If the standoff between Brussels and Warsaw continues, the dispute will be sent up to EU leaders.
But Poland is unlikely to face the harshest penalties. The EU could only remove Poland’s voting rights if member states agree unanimously there has been “a serious and persistent breach of the rule of law”.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has already said he would never let that happen. Orbán, a close ally of Kaczyński, has had his own battles with Brussels over sovereignty. In 2011, he agreed to change a law restricting press freedom, after pressure from the commission.
The EU introduced the rule-of-law procedure in 2014, after years of struggling to deal with lapses in democratic standards among member states.
Timmermans called on the Polish government to act quickly. Polish leadership was needed in the EU, he said, and should not be distracted by an issue that can be solved.