European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová visited Warsaw today to discuss the ongoing judicial overhaul amid mounting concerns about the rule of law in Poland.
Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has voted to add Poland to its monitoring procedure of democratic institutions and the rule of law, which PACE said have been “severely damaged” by the Polish government’s reforms. It makes Poland the only EU member state to be monitored by PACE.
In Warsaw, Jourová said she “would like to do more to protect judges in the campaign against them,” responding to a proposed new disciplinary system for judges who question the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party’s legal changes. Opponents have dubbed it the “muzzle law”.
Probed about what she could do, Jourová, quoted by website Dziennik.pl, cited “instruments” at her disposal which could “help judges in member states work in conditions respectful to their work”.
The European Commission has already recently requested that the Court of Justice of the European Union suspend the disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court, which was set up under the government’s reforms. The Supreme Court itself recently ruled that the chamber is “not a court within the meaning of EU and national law”.
— EU Court of Justice (@EUCourtPress) January 24, 2020
Yet Jourová’s remarks today are believed to be a reference to the EU budget, which could in future restrict funding for member states deemed not to be compliant with rule-of-law standards, an idea floated by the European Parliament in 2018 and reiterated earlier this month.
“There is an increasing number of signals that EU funds will be transferred to member countries subject to compliance with the rule of law,” said Senate speaker Tomasz Grodzki, from the opposition Civic Platform (PO) party, following his meeting with Jourová today.
However, Jourová herself was keen to take a conciliatory tone. She presented her visit as a fact-finding mission, during which she met figures both from the ruling camp and the opposition.
In a similar vein, she met with the head the Constitutional Tribunal, who was engineered into her position by PiS and is a close associate of party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, as well as the president of the Supreme Court, who has been an opponent of the government’s reforms.
My first official visit to Warsaw ?? in my new role. It’s a great honour to start the visit in the @PLParliament with Speakers @elzbietawitek and @profGrodzki. Main message: to have a fair and honest dialogue, also on issues such as Rule of Law. #Sejm #Senat pic.twitter.com/WmuxFeqeOS
— Věra Jourová (@VeraJourova) January 28, 2020
After meeting with the justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, Jourová said that “dialogue is important in defining the rule-of-law parameters”. She insisted that she “does not want to get involved in internal domestic debate” in Poland, reports Do Rzeczy.
Ziobro himself said that as a “gesture of goodwill” he had “proposed a compromise” solution for the selection of judges. He claimed that it would be based on the system used in Germany. But he reiterated that there was “no possibility of returning” to the old system from before PiS’s reforms.
Grodzki, however, told Jourová that work is currently underway in the opposition-controlled Senate on a rival bill concerning the Council of the Judiciary (KRS), the body that nominates judges and which, after being reformed by PiS, was deemed “not impartial and independent” by the Supreme Court.
According to Grodzki, the proposed legislation “not only gives a chance to rectify the situation, but also complies with the requirements of international law, European law” and the Polish constitution. The bill is likely to be discussed when the Senate reconvenes in March.
Meanwhile, a survey published earlier on Tuesday by RMF, a radio station, and the Dziennik Gazeta Prawna newspaper indicated that the government may be losing the argument. A narrow majority of Poles (51.3%) said they take the Supreme Court’s side in the current judicial crisis, while less than half that number (22.4%) supported the government’s position.
Separately on Tuesday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe overwhelmingly passed a resolution declaring that recent reforms in Poland “severely damage the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law”.
It added Poland to the list of ten countries being monitored over the functioning of its democratic institutions and the rule of law. Others include Russia, Turkey and Ukraine, while Poland is now the only EU member state on the list.
This is certainly one of the most important @PACE_News votes on #Poland in decades. Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly just decided to open its strongest monitoring procedure on PiS’ take-over of #Poland’s judiciary & erosion of rule of law in the country. Large majority. pic.twitter.com/OxQYN3Gp6O
— Philippe Dam (@philippe_dam) January 28, 2020
Maria Wilczek is deputy editor of Notes from Poland. She is a regular writer for The Times, The Economist and Al Jazeera English, and has also featured in Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, The Spectator and Gazeta Wyborcza.