In Poland, Protesters Fear Court Ruling Points to EU Exit

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Fighting between Warsaw and Brussels deepens over laws, courts and money following Polish decision to end EU authority

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Unlike the UK, most Poles want to remain a member of the European Union – as do the Hungarians, another Central European country whose government is in regular conflict with the bloc where EU powers end and national sovereignty begins. it occurs.

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But on Thursday, Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled that the process of European integration encoded in EU treaty law, dubbed the “new phase”, is inconsistent with the Polish constitution, and should take precedence in the latter two conflicts. needed. Before joining the European Union in 2004, Poland agreed to the primacy of EU law. Poland’s ruling party says the European Union has overstepped its authority.

In Brussels, a spokesman for the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, on Monday did not give Poland a timeline for responding. EU officials fear the domino effect and gradual dissolution of the EU’s legal and political authority if a country could overrule EU rules and EU court decisions.

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“If you allow all these fundamental principles of European integration to be hollowed out and ignored, it is ultimately the end of the European Union,” said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The ruling was celebrated by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, a conservative nationalist faction that says it does not want to leave the European Union, but wants to take back its supranational authority, especially over Poland’s court system.

“EU bodies act outside the powers granted to them by the Republic of Poland,” said the ruling, led by Chief Justice Julia Przebiska. If it is allowed to stand, the ruling said, “Poland cannot function as a sovereign and democratic state.”

The trigger for the constitutional deadlock was changes to law and justice made in Poland’s court system after winning presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015. The new President Andrzej Duda previously refused to allow several constitutional judges appointed by the outgoing government to take their positions, instead setting the law. and justice-backed candidates, including Ms Przybyska, to the top court. That move violated the Polish legal code, the European Court of Human Rights later ruled.

Law and Justice then created a disciplinary chamber to punish judges, who otherwise enjoy extensive protection from political or parliamentary influence. The ruling party said the system was necessary to make judges accountable to elected members of parliament and to purge the handful of communist-era judges still serving in Poland.

In July, the European Court of Justice, the EU’s top court, ruled that the disciplinary chamber threatens the independence of the national court system – making it inconsistent with EU law – and should be suspended. Poland has not yet complied with that decision.

Instead, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki asked his country’s constitutional tribunal to decide whether national law should replace EU law on the issue.

Divergent approaches have led to conflict over whether Poland can remain a member of the European Union, as well as create a system of governance in which the ruling party holds political authority over the court system.

Also at stake are tens of billions of dollars in EU aid for Poland, which is being considered withheld, on the grounds that the Polish government does not have a sufficiently independent court system to ensure that funds are recovered. be spent from Some governments, including Ireland and the Netherlands, have halted extradition to Poland – a major break in the daily functioning of the European Union – over concerns that Polish courts can no longer guarantee a fair trial.

Alex Szerbic, Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex, said that for law and justice, the issue is sovereignty. “On something like this, it’s very difficult to see how they can backfire,” he said. “And the question is, how far does the EU political establishment want to move on this?”

The EU’s top court will soon decide how much to fine Poland for ignoring its decision. Some records expect daily fines. Poland could use last week’s decision to ignore the fine but Brussels could recover money from Poland’s EU budget revenues.

Brussels is already using other financial leverage to squeeze Warsaw. Since May, the EU has stalled a decision to distribute the first of the €36 billion – $41.6 billion – in grants and loans Poland has under the EU’s pandemic economic recovery plan, in large part on judicial independence. because of concerns.

The European Commission could also trigger a rules-of-law tool agreed last year that allows Brussels to halt regular budget payments if corruption or rules-of-laws endanger the fair use of EU funds. Poland remains the largest net recipient of EU funds, with around €12.5 billion in 2020.

Yet EU officials see a political risk in escalating the fight. In the short term Poland could block several areas of EU decision-making that require unanimity, including decisions on the EU’s ambitious climate plans.

Brussels also knows it must engage with its plans most member states, not just Western European countries such as France and the Netherlands, whose governments have long criticized Warsaw.

While France and Germany were among those to condemn Poland’s decisions, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a close ally of the Polish government, warned Brussels to respect Poland’s sovereignty.

EU leaders meeting in Brussels next week will allow European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to gauge the mood on Poland’s decision.

Drew Hinshaw at [email protected] and Lawrence Norman at [email protected]

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