BRUSSELS: The European Union launched an unprecedented probe on Wednesday into controversial legal changes introduced by Poland’s new right-wing government to see if they violate EU democracy rules and merit punitive measures.
The move comes amid growing concern over changes to Poland’s constitutional court and increased control over state media introduced by the conservative, eurosceptic Law and Justice Party (PiS), which swept to power in October.
“Today we have decided that the Commission will carry out a preliminary assessment on this matter under the rule of law framework,” European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said after a special debate on the issue.
Timmermans said “binding rulings” by Poland’s constitutional court were not being respected by the new government, “which I believe is a serious matter in any rule of law dominated state.”
He said he was also concerned about new media laws in Poland. The EU will review Poland’s answers by March.
Brussels introduced the “rule of law” mechanism in 2014, giving the 28-nation bloc the right to investigate and if necessary punish any member state which violates key EU democratic and rights norms.
If found at fault, a country can be stripped of its EU voting rights — the so-called “nuclear option” — but the procedure has not been used before and officials say they hope it does not come to that.
– ‘Standard dialogue’, insists Poland –
Polish President Andrzej Duda last week signed into law a bill handing the conservative government the power to appoint and sack senior figures in public radio.
The new government has also reformed the constitutional court, despite mass protests and opposition complaints that the changes threatened judicial independence.
Poland’s government downplayed the EU’s move, describing it as “standard dialogue”.
“This is fact-finding activity by the European Commission based on speculation that has appeared in Western European countries,” government spokesman Rafal Bochenek told reporters Wednesday in Warsaw.
“The European Commission simply wants a little more information about what is happening in Poland. It will be a pleasure to inform the Commission chief (Jean-Claude Juncker) and of course we invite him to Poland.”
But the EU’s move threatens to add to already tense relations with Poland and other eastern European countries such as Hungary who resent what they see as Brussels’ interference.
It comes amid a series of disputes over domestic policy and the reluctance of some eastern European countries to take in more of the migrants flooding into Europe.
The Polish government insists the changes are perfectly consistent with the rule of law and that Brussels should mind its own business.
Poland has been unfairly accused of things that don’t exist in our country… of breaking the principles of the rule of law. That’s not true. Democracy is alive and well in Poland,” Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told parliament Wednesday.
Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said Tuesday he had been “astonished” by Brussels’ demand for explanations, which he described as “an attempt to exert pressure upon the democratically elected” government.
– ‘Fundamental values’ –
Timmermans however insisted that Brussels had a right to examine the situation in Poland.
“The rule of law preserved throughout the EU is a key part of the Commission’s responsibilities… the rule of law is one of our fundamental values,” he said.
Relations have nosedived since the PiS party swept back to power in October after eight years in opposition, promising a much harder line on the EU and immigrants.
Harsh words from Brussels were matched by tough rhetoric in Warsaw, with a Polish magazine depicting EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Nazi uniforms.
The split is just the latest in an EU sharply divided by a host of problems ranging from Greece’s near eurozone exit to the continent’s biggest migration crisis since World War II.
Poland’s new government stands in sharp contrast to its predecessor which built an influential position in Brussels, highlighted by the appointment of former centrist Polish premier Donald Tusk to head the European Council of the 28 EU leaders.
It has found common cause too with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has likewise fallen foul of the Commission over his changes to the judiciary and press.