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EU Can Do ‘Very Little’ to Stop Polish Judicial Reforms, Experts Say

Leaders of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) have remained defiant as the European Union has condemned recent reforms it says undermine the country’s judicial independence.

Leaders of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) have remained defiant as the European Union has condemned recent reforms it says undermine the country’s judicial independence. Despite the E.U.’s actions, experts say that there’s little the bloc can do to hinder the party’s far-right agenda.

Last week, 27 of 72 Poland’s Supreme Court justices were removed from office in accordance with legislation passed by the PiS government in December.

The legislation reduces the age at which Supreme Court judges must retire from 70 to 65 and expands the number of justices from 72 to 120, allowing PiS to fill new seats with loyalists.

“[The PiS] are opposed to judges who can rule against PiS supporters and declare PiS laws unconstitutional. Now that PiS has control over the judiciary, such rulings won’t happen anymore,” Brian Porter-Szücs, a professor of history at the University of Michigan who has authored numerous books and articles on Polish politics, told The Globe Post.

Amongst the justices ousted by the recent reforms was chief justice Malgorzata Gersdorf, who’s been critical of the PiS government since it came into power following the 2015 elections.

PiS leaders insist that the reforms are necessary to combat corruption and mitigate the influence of judges left over from the countries communist era — a claim Porter-Szücs called conspiratorial and “absurd.”

Despite widespread protests across Poland and legal action taken by the European Commission — the E.U.’s executive arm — PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński said the government intends to maintain its course.

Speaking to the pro-government weekly “Sieci,” Kaczyński said Monday the E.U.’s efforts to block PiS judicial reforms won’t “break the Polish will.”

Following the passing of the judicial reform legislation in December, the European Commision triggered unprecedented article seven proceedings that, if put into effect, would suspend Poland’s voting rights privileges within the bloc. Experts, however, say such measures are unlikely to pass.

The imposition of article seven would require a unanimous vote of all EU states.  Porter-Szücs said the measure is infeasible because the PiS can rely on Hungary’s authoritarian regime to block any attempt to punish Poland.

“The E.U. has no power to intervene, and they will not stop the PiS program to undermine Poland’s constitutional system,” he said.

Steven Wolinetz, a professor of political science at Memorial University who has recently edited a book on right-wing populism in Europe, told The Globe Post that other than imposing article seven, there is “very little” the E.U. can do to penalize Poland for its reforms.

“Unless you somehow suspend them from the single market for goods and services … then the sanction is you’re excluded from certain decision making or maybe you get the cold shoulder,” Wolinetz said. “Poland’s leaders will say ‘so what?’ … They don’t have a heck of a lot of clout anyway … life will go on.”

Amidst turmoil over judicial reforms, Poland’s economy remains relatively strong and is not particularly reliant on discretionary aid from the E.U. While there may be certain funding to Poland the E.U. could cut, Porter-Szücs said that wouldn’t be enough to incentivize the PiS to abandon judicial reforms.

“As Poland has gotten richer, and closer to the EU average, they have become eligible for fewer and fewer funds,” he said.

According to Wolinetz, the E.U.’s hard stance on Europe is largely symbolic and about perception.

“The bottom line is that the politics is much more important than applying the politics in such a situation,” he said.

While the E.U. may have little leverage to halt Poland’s reforms, that doesn’t mean the PiS government’s agenda won’t have lasting impacts on the country and the rest of Europe.

Since coming to power, the PiS has “purged” many of the countries institutions including the civil service, state media, public education and the judiciary, Porter-Szücs said. Beyond supreme court justices, more than 11,000 civil servants have been forced out of office by PiS legislation in an effort to consolidate power.

“The longer PiS stays in power in Warsaw, the further Poland’s reputation in West European capitals will fall,” he said. “Meanwhile, the stronger Poland’s relations will become with other authoritarian regimes.”

Wolinetz said the PiS regime’s far-right, authoritarian agenda has diminished Poland’s reputation as a post-Communism success story.

“There’s some baggage to be processed and countries will probably be doing it …  over the next few decades,” Wolinetz said, speaking more broadly about far-right populism around the world. “The world as I knew it and grew up in  … is changing in alarming ways.”

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