EU ministers will hold a hearing on Poland’s alleged rule-of-law violations later this month, pushing forward with a disciplinary process that Warsaw insists is unjustified.
The decision by EU diplomats to press forward with a hearing, as requested by the European Commission, shows that Brussels does not believe the Polish government has done enough to ensure the independence of the country’s judiciary.
An initial hearing on the rule-of-law issue will be held during a meeting of the General Affairs Council (GAC) on June 26, and “will be focused on the most urgent issues identified by the Commission,” said Genoveva Chervenakova, a spokeswoman for the Bulgarian presidency of the Council of the EU. “Most of the member states supported the request by the Commission” for a hearing, Chervenakova said.
In December, the Commission triggered a disciplinary proceeding under Article 7 of the EU treaty for what it considered “systemic threats” to the independence of the Polish courts. The key concerns focused on the Polish government’s ability to remove up to 40 percent of the Supreme Court’s judges and the justice minister’s power to discipline judges. Separately, the Commission has sought redress through the European Court of Justice.
Among the most urgent matters for Brussels is the law on the Supreme Court, which is set to take effect on July 3. Poland has insisted that the changes to its judiciary are legal, and a domestic matter on which the EU should not interfere.
Theoretically, a country found guilty of an Article 7 violation can have its EU voting rights suspended, but such a decision requires unanimity of the other EU nations. Hungary, an ally of Poland, has long vowed to block the Article 7 process should it reach that point.
Because of the practical limits of the Article 7 process, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had considered backing away from the disciplinary measures in favor of negotiating a deal with Warsaw. First Vice President Frans Timmermans, who has led the Commission’s enforcement efforts against Poland, had urged that the EU stand its ground, and the Commission ultimately endorsed his view by requesting that the Council hold a hearing.
EU diplomats on Wednesday said that the hearing on rule-of-law would be divided into several segments because of the busy agenda for the GAC this month.
At a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he would support the Article 7 proceeding against Poland “fairly and squarely.”
“There can be no democratic legitimacy without the rule of law,” Rutte said. “Membership of the EU is not a statement of intent. It means opting unconditionally for freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, legal certainty and all those democratic achievements that binds us together as a community.”
At a debate with MEPs on the independence of the judiciary in Poland, Timmermans said the Commission had done everything possible to persuade Poland to shift course. “Frankly, I have been trying for two and a half years,” he said. “You can’t fault the Commission for not trying to find a way out through dialogue.”
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