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Polish PM expects EU sanctions over rule of law

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Brussels (AFP)

Poland's new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Thursday he expected the EU to impose unprecedented sanctions next week that could strip his government of its voting rights over its controversial court reforms.

The European Commission, the EU executive, will "probably activate" next Wednesday article seven of the EU treaty, designed to stop a "systemic" threat to the rule of law, Morawiecki told reporters at his first EU summit in Brussels.

"It is well within their purview," the Polish premier added.

"But between the start of such an unfair procedure against us until its conclusion, we will certainly speak many times with our partners," Morawiecki said.

Poland's right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government, which began making changes to the judiciary after coming to power in late 2015, insists the new reforms are needed to combat corruption and overhaul the judicial system still haunted by the communist era.

However, the commission has warned the reforms pose a threat to democratic principles and rule of law countries signed up to when they joined the European Union.

A European Commission spokeswoman said that the "state of play of the rule of law procedure against Poland is on the agenda" for Wednesday's high-level commission meeting.

"We cannot pre-empt the discussions of the (commission) on the matter," the spokeswoman told AFP.

- 'Nuclear option' -

Poland's right-wing dominated parliament last week adopted new reforms allowing it to choose members of a body designed to protect judicial independence and reinforce political control over the Supreme Court.

Warsaw has already come under heavy fire from Brussels for a string of earlier judicial reforms that the bloc argues pose a threat to the rule of law.

The reforms have also sparked street protests in Poland and concern from the US State Department.

The EU has for months warned Poland it may trigger article seven -- the so-called "nuclear option" that freezes voting rights -- over the reforms.

The EU can take this step by a majority.

But moving on to actual sanctions against Poland must be approved by all the remaining member states, meaning it could be vetoed by Budapest, which has also clashed with Brussels over democracy issues.

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks has said the new Polish reforms "will further undermine the independence of the judiciary."

They "subordinate the judiciary to the executive and the legislature," further eroding the separation of powers and the rule of law, he said.

But the Polish prime minister defended the changes.

"I am firmly convinced that sovereign states -- and Europe must be a Europe of sovereign states -- have an absolute right to reform their judicial systems," he said.

"The ineffectiveness of the Polish courts has become legendary even in Europe," Morawiecki added.

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