28 February 2020

EU threatens Poland with sanctions over court reform

KONFRONTASI-The EU warned Poland's right-wing government Wednesday to suspend controversial court reforms or risk unprecedented sanctions, sharply escalating a standoff with Warsaw.

Brussels threatened to trigger moves soon aimed at halting Poland's voting rights in the 28-nation bloc due to a "grave" threat to Polish judicial independence.

It also warned it could launch other disciplinary action as early as next week.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Polish cities against the governing Law and Justice party's reforms, which would give parliament powers over the selection of judges.

"These laws considerably increase the systemic threat to the rule of law in Poland," European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans said after a high-level meeting on Poland.

"Collectively, they would abolish any remaining judicial independence and put the judiciary under full political control of the government."

The Dutchman added that "we are very close to triggering article seven" -- the bloc's never-before used "nuclear option" that can halt a country's right to vote in EU meetings.

Poland would, however, likely escape such a measure as it would be vetoed by its ally Hungary.

Timmermans spoke out against the intimidation of journalists who have been critical of the Polish government, adding: "In darkness democracy dies."

The clash underscores a growing rift between Brussels and many eastern member states, where populist and increasingly authoritarian governments are pushing for greater sovereignty, particularly over migration.

The EU first warned Poland in early 2016 over reforms of the constitutional court by the Law and Justice party, which won elections in late 2015.

The European Commission said in a statement that it "urges the Polish authorities to put the new laws on hold" and to re-engage in dialogue.

It said it would "swiftly prepare infringement procedures for breach of EU law" to possibly be launched against Warsaw next week at another high-level Commission meeting.

EU states can be taken to the bloc's highest court and eventually given stiff fines for such breaches.

Separately, Brussels gave the latest in a series of hints that Poland could receive less in EU funding if it does not comply.[mr/apf/ptv]



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