The European Commission has formally censured Poland’s government for endangering the rule of law.
In an opinion published on Wednesday, the European Union’s executive says that constitutional reforms enacted by the right-wing Law and Justice party that came to power last year are anti-democratic.
It is the first time in EU history that the commission slaps a member state on the wrist for undermining its democracy.
Sanctions are unlikely. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whose nationalist party has much in common with Law and Justice, has already said he would block fines or an attempt to deprive Poland of its voting rights in Brussels, steps that would take unanimity from all 28 member states.
The commission’s first vice president, Frans Timmermans, who has taken responsibility for the Polish issue, tacitly acknowledged it could do little more than exhort leaders in Warsaw to change course when he said, “There have been constructive talks which should now be translated into concrete steps to resolve the systemic risk to the rule of law in Poland.”
Except Polish statements suggests those talks have been far less constructive that Timmermans makes them out to be.
In parliament last month, Prime Minister Beata Szydło said, “It’s not Poland which has a problem with the European Commission, it’s the European Commission which has the problem.”
She blamed the Constitutional Tribunal — the high court at the heart of the dispute — for the crisis, calling it “an institution tangled up in politics.”
Law and Justice has long regarded the tribunal as biased against it. It was a thorn in the eye of the last right-wing government, from 2005 and 2007, and has been no more accommodating to the present one.
Earlier this year, it threw out a series of reforms the party had rushed through parliament in a late-night sitting that required the court to take cases in chronological order rather than at its own discretion and introduced a quorum of thirteen out of fifteen judges for important decisions.
Andrzej Rzepliński, the Constitutional Tribunal’s president, said the changes interfered with the court’s independence and “violated the principles of a law-bound state.”
Opposition parties agreed.
Law and Justice, however, ignored the tribunal’s ruling, arguing that it did not have a thirteen-judge quorum.
But the only reason it didn’t was that Law and Justice had overturned the appointment of three judges made by the last, more liberal parliament — and the court would not accept their Law and Justice-nominated replacements.
The party’s attempt to stack the tribunal is not an isolated incident.
Since it returned to power, Law and Justice has purged political opponents from government agencies and state-run companies. Critical media outlets have been threatened by lawmakers.
63 percent of Poles now feel their democracy is in danger, a survey published in the Rzeczpospolita newspaper showed.