The European Commission launched unprecedented disciplinary proceedings against Poland on Wednesday over its highly controversial judicial reforms which Brussels says threaten the rule of law.
In a major escalation against one of the E.U.’s biggest states, Brussels triggered article seven of the E.U. treaty over what it sees as “systemic threats” to the independence of the Polish judiciary from the nation’s right-wing government.
Never before used against an E.U. member state, the proceedings can eventually lead to the “nuclear option” of the suspension of a country’s voting rights within the bloc.
But just hours after the announcement, a defiant Polish president went ahead and signed the reforms into law.
The row underlines growing east-west tensions within the European Union, with former Soviet bloc states like Poland and Hungary refusing to toe the Brussels line on several thorny issues including judicial and media independence as well as immigration.
“It is with a heavy heart that we have decided to initiate Article 7.1. But the facts leave us with no choice,” Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told reporters.
It is with a heavy heart that we have activated Article 7(1). But the facts leave us with no choice. We have no other option. This is not just about Poland, it is about the EU as a whole. We continue to hope that we can enter into a more fruitful dialogue.
— Frans Timmermans (@TimmermansEU) December 20, 2017
The Dutch commissioner said 13 laws adopted by Poland in the space of two years had created a situation where the government “can systematically politically interfere with the composition, powers, the adminstration and the functioning” of judicial authorities.
But Mr. Timmermans gave Warsaw three months to remedy the situation, saying Brussels could withdraw the measures if it did.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said on Twitter it was “a difficult day for Poland, but also for the E.U.” and said he would meet Poland’s new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki early next month.
E.U. President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and arch-rival of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, urged Warsaw to “come to its senses” and “not seek a conflict at all cost in a case where it is simply not right.”
In response, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda accused the E.U. of “lying” about his country’s judicial reforms.
“Very many representatives of European institutions tell lies about Poland; They’re lying. They lie when they say that there are changes in Poland that lead to violations of the rule of law, because we are improving democratic standards,” Mr. Duda told Poland’s Polsat commercial television.