Polish court defies EU as critics warn on 'Polexit'

Warsaw (AFP) –


Poland's Constitutional Court defied the European Union on Wednesday with a ruling that government critics said puts a question mark over the country's future membership of the bloc.

The court ruled that any interim measures issued by the EU Court of Justice against Poland's controversial judicial reforms were "not in line" with the Polish constitution.

"We are in the process of a legal Polexit which is taking place step by step," Poland's independent human rights ombudsman Adam Bodnar told reporters after the ruling.

Former EU chief Donald Tusk, head of the opposition Civic Platform party, accused the governing right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) party of "leaving the EU".

"Only we Poles can successfully oppose this," he tweeted.

But Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro hailed the ruling, saying it was "against interference, usurpation and legal aggression by organs of the European Union".

The ruling came after the EU court earlier on Wednesday issued an interim order for Poland to immediately suspend the activities of the "disciplinary chamber" of the Supreme Court -- a newly established institution set up as part of the reforms.

- 'Polexit from EU legal order' -

Warsaw and Brussels have been at loggerheads for years over reforms pushed through by the PiS government.

The government argues the reforms are necessary to tackle corruption and end Communist-era legacies in the judiciary.

But the European Commission says they undermine rule of law and has sought to bring Poland, as well as Hungary, back into line with what it sees as European democratic norms.

The Constitutional Court itself underwent controversial reforms in 2016 designed by the PiS government, leading critics both in Poland and abroad to argue it is stacked with PiS allies.

The Polish law on reforming the judiciary, which came into force in February last year, prevents judges from referring questions of law to the European Court of Justice and creates a body that rules on judges' independence without regard to EU law.

It also set up a "disciplinary chamber" to oversee Supreme Court judges, with the power to lift their immunity to expose them to criminal proceedings or cut their salaries.

More confrontation over the reforms is expected on Thursday.

The EU court is set to issue another ruling on the legitimacy of the "disciplinary chamber", while Poland's Constitutional Court is holding a hearing and may rule in a wide-reaching case on whether EU or national law should have primacy in Poland.

The possibility of a clear challenge to the primacy of EU law in Poland has been interpreted by some experts as a tentative first step towards a Polish exit from the EU -- even though opinion polls show EU membership remains very popular among Poles.

Laurent Pech, a professor of European law at Middlesex University London, tweeted that the Constitutional Court decision represented "Polexit from EU legal order".