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Could Poland Leave EU over Judicial Reform?
Armed with European flags in hand, thousands of protesters have marched across Poland this week in opposition of a law that could allow the government the power to fire and control the judiciary if it disagrees with its court reforms.
On Friday, Poland’s parliament defied Brussels by voting in favor of the controversial bill even after European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova asked authorities to hold off the vote and consult with external legal experts beforehand.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has promised to continue reforming the country’s justice system since its re-election in October—but its ideas for a judicial overhaul have caused it to clash repeatedly with Brussels.
And Poland’s Supreme Court warned this week the eastern European country could be forced to leave the bloc if the proposals were voted through.
“Contradictions between Polish law and EU law… will in all likelihood lead to an intervention by the EU institutions regarding an infringement of the EU treaties, and in the longer perspective (will lead to) the need to leave the European Union,” Poland’s Supreme Court said in a statement on December 17.
Parliament slightly tweaked the proposals to remove a policy that would have required judges to give the names of social media accounts they use under a pseudonym.
But another controversial part of the bill was passed, which could see judges lose their jobs or face pay cuts if they question the competence of their peers appointed by a newly created court, whose impartiality has been called into question by the European Court of Justice.
Leaving the EU ‘step by step’
The PiS, which has been in power since 2015, argues the changes are needed to tackle corruption and rid the judiciary of communist-era judges.
But the EU has continuously accused PiS of trying to politicize the judiciary. Last year, the EU forced Poland to abandon a law that lowered the retirement age for Supreme Court judges as it said it breached EU rules. And in 2017, Brussels trigged Article 7 against Poland—a law that can suspend a member’s EU voting rights–due to concerns about government influence on the judiciary.
Poland has become more of a distant EU member since it joined the bloc in 2004. It was the only country not to sign up to the European Commission’s Green Deal and it is not a Eurozone member.
"We [Poland] are leaving the EU step by step. It's not an exaggeration. This departs from all the norms on which the European Union is built," former EU Council president Donald Tusk, who is also a former Polish prime minister, told reporters this week.
The new law will pose a major test for the new Commission president as PiS voted for Ursula von der Leyen and was key to swaying the narrow vote in her favor.
But a Polish exit from the bloc looks unlikely, according to analysts.
“It would be the EU’s exit from Poland, not the other way around,” said Pawel Zerka, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
Zerka believes despite the new law bringing “inevitable tensions” between the EU and Poland, a more likely outcome would be less EU funds being allocated to Poland and increasing frustration from Brussels.
He says while the reforms “are very dangerous,” they are mostly meant for internal politics.
The Senate will now vote on the new law for it to come into force. But PiS lost control of the upper house to the opposition in November.
And the election for the presidency next year is also looking close for PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
In theory, even if the senate vetoes the judicial reforms, the president would have a final say.
But Zerka said the president could then vote against the reforms, saying he is “an homme d’état" to boost his image.
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