LUXEMBOURG – European Union foreign ministers urged Poland on Tuesday to answer questions about the rule of law amid concerns about a government clampdown on judicial independence.
The EU Commission had earlier launched a rule of law procedure against Warsaw over what it sees as an erosion of independence in Poland's justice system. Technically, the procedure could strip Poland of EU voting rights, but that's unlikely to happen as its ally Hungary appears ready to veto such action.
"The rule of law is one of the backbones of European cooperation and there are a number of laws in Poland that raise questions," Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said on the sidelines of a meeting in Luxembourg.
The overhaul of the Polish justice system began after the populist ruling party won elections in 2015. The party says it is reforming a corrupt justice system overseen by an unaccountable clique of judges. Critics, however, see a power grab given that many of the changes include giving the executive and legislative branches greater control over the judiciary, weakening the system of checks and balances.
Among the changes is a new law on the Supreme Court to take effect July 3, which could see the forced resignation of nearly 40 percent of the current judges. Any wishing to stay could do so only if the president agrees. The new laws also created a new "extraordinary appeal" chamber within the Supreme Court which could reopen cases from the previous 20 years on appeal from the prosecutor general, who is also the justice minister, or the ombudsman.
"The possibility that verdicts can be actually brought into doubt for a period of 20 years is quite unique," Blok said.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn also expressed concern about changes to the judges' terms.
"You can't change the rules in the middle of things. If there are judges who are named for a certain period, you can't say during that time that now there are limits," he told reporters. "We are not here to judge Poland or criticize Poland. We're here to say that in Europe the independence of the judiciary is sacred, so everything has to be done to protect it."
Polish officials strongly deny that the judicial overhaul violates the rule of law, with the Foreign Ministry saying that the Commission's analysis contains "factual mistakes and misleading assessments" and does not take into account changes that Poland made in response to the Commission's urging.
Marek Suski, a top aide to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, said Tuesday he does not believe that the EU is being objective toward Poland.
Poland strongly opposes the conclusions drawn by the Commission, which polices EU law.
Konrad Szymanski, Poland's minister for European affairs, said Tuesday that Warsaw hopes individual members states will do their own detailed and independent analyses of the facts and decide for themselves.