Poland faces tough EU censure in judicial reform row

Brussels (AFP) –


After months of warnings, the European Commission is expected Wednesday to trigger an unprecedented disciplinary procedure against Poland over its highly controversial judicial reforms.

Poland's new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said last week the EU would "probably activate" article seven of the EU treaty over what it sees as "systemic threats" to the independence of the Polish judiciary.

Never before used, article seven proceedings are seen as a "nuclear option" against an EU member state as they can lead -- albeit at the end of a complex process -- to a suspension of voting rights at the European Council.

Poland's 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.

As well as heavy criticism from Brussels, the reforms have sparked street protests in Poland and concern from the US State Department.

The initial phase that the EU's commission, the bloc's executive arm, may set in motion on Wednesday allows member states to "determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach" of the rule of law. Such a ruling would need the backing of 22 states.

Any possible sanctions would only come at a second stage and would need unanimous support of all EU members -- apart from Poland.

Hungary has already said it would veto such a move, making sanctions unlikely, but Brussels is hoping the start of proceedings will have significant symbolic power.

- 'It must be done' -

The commission, which has the backing of Paris and Berlin, has refused to confirm that any decision has been taken.

But France's Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau said Tuesday that "unless something happens by tomorrow, there is a strong likelihood the procedure will begin".

"It must be done. France is supporting the commission in this step completely," she said, even if French President Emmanuel Macron has said he hopes Poland will change course under its new PM.

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

Warsaw and the EU have clashed over the reforms for more than a year with little result. Poland has refused to implement the "recommendations" from Brussels, defending its right to clean up what it says is a corrupt judicial "caste".

"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," Morawiecki said last week, sticking to the line of his eurosceptic predecessor Beata Szydlo.

In the face of this doggedness, the commission has been threatening to trigger article seven for months, but given that the threat of sanctions is no more than theoretical, the EU is trying to come up with other ways of getting Poland to comply.

One idea is to link access to European funding for major infrastructure projects to respect for EU values and rulings.

"A country that is drifting away from the rule of law cannot at the same time ask Brussels to be supported by billions (of euros) in funding," French minister Loiseau said.