* Deep court reforms at heart of PiS’ drive to reinvent Poland
* Critics say changes weaken courts, rule of law
* Commission says even Duda’s softer draft bills unacceptable
By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS, Nov 15 (Reuters) - The European Commission on Wednesday aired “serious concerns” over proposals by President Andrzej Duda to overhaul courts in Poland, signalling it would not back down in a dispute that has tarnished the reputation of the former communist country.
Long seen as a beacon of economic and political stability in the European Union’s eastern wing, Poland has found itself increasingly in conflict with Brussels since the nationalist, eurosceptic and socially conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party swept to power in an election in late 2015.
PiS has been pressing deep changes to the Polish judiciary as well as other institutions, saying they are needed for a moral renewal of the country of 38 million people.
But opposition parties, rights groups, judges’ lobbies, the international watchdog Council of Europe, Poland’s western EU peers such as Germany and France and the bloc’s executive Commission say the changes erode judicial independence by bringing the courts under the direct control of the government.
Faced with EU pressure and mass street protests in Poland against the changes, Duda - who hails from PiS himself - unexpectedly blocked two of the government’s judiciary reforms in July.
He has since presented his own version of these draft laws, infuriating PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who ultimately sets the government agenda without himself holding any cabinet post, and precipitating a power struggle within the ruling camp.
Poland’s president has a role in approving new legislation and Kaczynski has therefore held numerous meetings with Duda since then to break the stalemate.
But the European Commission’s deputy head Frans Timmermans told the European Parliament on Wednesday that even the draft laws proposed by Duda - which row back somewhat from the options for direct government interference in the judiciary provided by the original PiS bills - were not acceptable.
“At this preliminary stage of our assessment, the Commission already notes that certain issues in these draft laws could raise serious concerns,” Timmermans told EU lawmakers in their fifth debate on concerns about the rule of law in Poland.
He urged Warsaw to align the drafts with EU standards on judicial independence, adding that further work on the bills would “provide a key test for the Polish authorities... whether or not there is willingness to respect the rule of law”.
Timmermans has been the face of the EU’s efforts to bring the prickly Polish government back into the EU mainstream, to no avail so far as Warsaw uses any external pressure to drum up support among its core voters who are distrustful of Brussels.
Warsaw has also clashed with the EU over immigration and the large-scale logging of a primeval forest in Poland. It has remained defiant despite multiple legal cases opened against it by the Commission, as well as a special probe that could see it formally denounced by the EU as undemocratic. (Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones)