BRUSSELS, Dec 20 (Reuters) - The EU executive launched an unprecedented process on Wednesday to suspend Poland’s voting rights in the European Union after two years of dispute over judicial reforms that Brussels says undermine Polish courts’ independence.
The European Commission, the guardian of EU law, will now ask the other EU governments to declare that Poland’s changes to the judiciary constitute “a clear risk of a serious breach” of EU values -- especially the rule of law.
However, it gave Warsaw, where a new prime minister took office only this month, three months to remedy the situation and said it could rescind its decision if it did so. Often referred to as the EU’s “nuclear option”, the move carries the ultimate threat of sanctions but is in fact unlikely to result in that.
“The Commission has today concluded that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland,” the Commission said in a statement.
“Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country’s judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority. In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law.”
The Commission’s deputy head, First Vice President Frans Timmermans, who has conducted talks with the Polish government dominated by Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski for the past two years, said he was acting “with a heavy heart” but was obliged to take action to protect the Union as a whole.
“We are open for dialogue 24/7,” Timmermans said, saying that if Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who took office just this month, were to change tack, he would be ready to respond.
But Timmermans insisted: “As guardians of the treaty, the Commission is under a strict responsibility to act ... If the application of the rule of law is left completely to the individual member states, then the whole of the EU will suffer.”
“This decision has no merit. It is in our opinion a purely political decision,” Beata Mazurek, a spokeswoman for Poland’s ruling party, was quoted as saying by state news agency PAP.
Stung by Britain’s vote last year to leave the Union, the EU institutions are battling a rise in eurosceptic nationalism across the continent and particularly in the former Communist east, where Poland’s ally Hungary has also prompted previously the Commission to threaten sanctions over the rule of law.
Seeking to counter Warsaw’s accusations of an anti-Polish bias in Brussels and in his own behaviour, Timmermans, who once worked in the Soviet bloc as a Dutch diplomat, praised Poland’s historic contribution to overcoming the Cold War divide of Europe but said Warsaw now bore a special responsibility to prevent new rifts opening up over democratic principles.
“I want to stand by the Polish people in this time which is very difficult for them, and for us,” he said, adding that the defending a separation of powers was of “existential importance not just for the Polish nation but for the EU as a whole”.
The next step in the process is that EU governments, meeting in the Council of the European Union, will hear Poland out and ask it to address their concerns.
But if 22 out of the EU’s 28 countries and the European Parliament are not satisfied in the end, the process will move on to the next stages, which may mean sanctions.
The sanctions can involve the suspension of “the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights”.
This formulation leaves open the possibility also of suspending EU financial transfers to Poland, now the biggest beneficiary of European funds aimed at boosting living standards in the former communist country.
Sanctions can be imposed with the backing of a majority of countries representing a majority of the EU’s citizens. But to get to that stage, EU governments have first to unanimously agree that what was initially just a risk of a serious breach of the rule of law has now become a reality.
This is unlikely to happen, because Hungary has already declared that it would not support such a motion against Poland.
But the mere threat of it underlines the sharp deterioration in ties between Warsaw and Brussels since the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party won power in late 2015.
The Commission and Council of Europe legal experts, known as the Venice Commission, say Poland’s judicial reforms undermine judges’ independence because they give the ruling party control over the sacking and the appointments of judges, as well as the option to end the terms of some Supreme Court judges early.
The Council of Europe, Europe’s human rights watchdog, has compared such measures to those of the Soviet system.
The PiS government rejects these accusations, saying the changes are needed because courts are slow, inefficient and steeped in a communist era-mentality. Polish President Andrzej Duda has until Jan. 5 to sign them into law. (Additional reporting by Marcin Goclowski in Warsaw and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)