Poland crisis threatens EU order

Brussels (AFP) –


Poland's row with Brussels over judicial reforms threatens to undermine the bloc's legal order and stoke a growing divide between the EU's eastern and western states, officials and analysts say.

Though Poland's president vetoed some of the measures after mass protests, officials say Brussels still faces an underlying problem of being ill-prepared to face such challenges to democratic standards.

With Brussels at odds with Hungary too over governance issues, the Polish crisis has deepened the split with the eastern former communist states where authoritarian governments are on the rise.

"It's a very fundamental thing which is going on there in Poland that Europe has to deal with," Manfred Weber, the head of the European People's Party, the biggest bloc in the European Parliament, told AFP.

"We have to (put in) practice our standards, and then we can be convincing on the global level," with the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey, Russia and other countries, added the German politician, a key ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Weber said US President Donald Trump's visit to Warsaw on July 6 was a "signal" that may have emboldened Poland's ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) to forge ahead with its latest court reforms.

The measures would have reinforced political control over the courts, with opponents saying they placed too much power in the government's hands.

- 'Not very well equipped' -

The EU first sounded the alarm over PiS's judicial reforms shortly after it won elections in 2015, but Warsaw has since largely ignored its warnings that it would affect democracy's checks and balances.

Finally last week Brussels changed tack and said that Poland could not only face legal action but also the "nuclear option" of the EU's Article 7 -- an unprecedented suspension of Poland's EU voting rights.

Hungary's populist premier Viktor Orban -- whose own country has faced several recent legal threats from Brussels over laws targeting education and civil society -- jumped to Poland's defence against what he called an "inquisition" from Brussels.

Notably, Orban's intervention underscored the weakness of Article 7, with the Hungarian premier saying that he would instantly veto any such move by the EU against a sovereign country.

Polish President Andrzej Duda surprised many on Monday when he decided to veto two of the PiS-backed bills -- one reinforcing political control over the Supreme Court, and another allowing parliament to choose members of a body designed to ensure independence of the courts.

But the situation remains tense, with Duda on Tuesday signing into law one other judicial reform, while the government vowed to press on with the other two.

EU Vice President Frans Timmermans is due to announce on Wednesday the bloc's next steps, but even if he does push on with legal action, at this stage all he can do is launch proceedings that could result in Poland paying a fine.

Ultimately, officials admit that Brussels is not fully prepared for events like those in Poland.

When the EU brought in Article 7 it was less a response to fears about the rule of law in the wave of eastern states like Poland joining after 2004, but more as a backstop that had little chance of being used.

"We are not very well equipped, to be honest, to handle these situations because we really never foresaw it would happen," an EU source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

- 'High level of nervosity' -

EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova meanwhile said the Polish crisis had caused a "very high level of nervosity" about whether it could "affect the whole EU system of mutual recognition of court decisions."

For example, a country that is usually required to act on arrest warrants from another EU capital may now refuse to do so if it suspects the request is politically motivated, a senior EU official said.

Crucially, the Poland row may be furthering an east-west EU split at the very moment that the bloc is trying to present a show of unity in the face of Brexit, and after finally appearing to heal the north-south divide caused by the eurozone crisis.

Together with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland form the so-called Visegrad Four group, which has become a thorn in Brussels's side, clashing with the EU over their increasingly nationalist and anti-immigration stances.

"Further tensions with the EU fuel existing differences" with the V4, said Daniel Bartha, executive director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy.

There were also concerns that Poland could prompt other EU countries to follow its more authoritarian path, and that the Visegrad Four could slip further away from the rest of the EU on fundamental values, the EU source said.

The Czechs and Slovaks had "found some strength in being in this V4 group", the source said.