BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission stepped up its defence of judicial independence and rule of law across the EU on Wednesday, announcing new legal measures against Poland and cautioning Romania not to pardon corrupt politicians.
The Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, is struggling to respond to what many in western Europe see as creeping authoritarianism in the eastern wing of the bloc, especially Poland, Hungary and Romania.
The Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said more needed to be done to strengthen the rule of law in the EU.
“The Union’s capacity to uphold the rule of law is essential, now more than ever,” he told a news conference. “First because it is an issue of fundamental values, a matter of ‘who we are’. Second, because the functioning of the EU as a whole depends on the rule of law in all member states.”
He said the Commission had launched a new infringement procedure against Poland over a disciplinary regime for judges introduced by the right-wing government in Warsaw, and he also warned Romania not to backtrack on its judiciary reforms.
Poland’s ruling PiS party has pursued an overhaul of the judiciary since taking power in late-2015. Under one of the changes, judges could be subjected to a disciplinary investigation and ultimately sanctions if authorities deemed their rulings inappropriate.
“The new disciplinary regime undermines the judicial independence of Polish judges by not offering necessary guarantees to protect them from political control, as required by the Court of Justice of the European Union,” Timmermans said.
The Polish disciplinary chamber is composed solely of judges selected by the National Council for the Judiciary whose members have been appointed by the ruling PiS majority in parliament.
The Commission also said the new disciplinary regime empowered the head of the disciplinary chamber to decide, on an ad-hoc basis and with an almost unfettered discretion, whether the disciplinary court of first instance heard a given case.
The Polish government has two months to reply to the Commission’s complaints.
The Commission also on Wednesday rebuked Romania, which is planning two emergency decrees altering judicial legislation. Critics say they are aimed at scuppering corruption cases or convictions of politicians, especially from the ruling Social Democrats.
“I want to warn against any governmental action that would disrupt the Romanian judicial system by creating a systemic de facto impunity for high office holders who were sentenced for corruption,” Timmermans said.
“Such a move would compel the Commission to act swiftly,” he said without specifying what the EU executive would do.
The embassies of the United States, Canada and 10 EU member states including France and Germany issued a joint appeal on Wednesday to Bucharest to scrap the decrees.
Separately on Wednesday, the head of the European Parliament, Antonio Tarjani, expressed concern over Bucharest’s decision to press charges against Romania’s former anti-corruption chief, Laura Codruta Kovesi, who is the chamber’s preferred candidate for EU chief prosecutor.
Transparency International ranks Romania among the EU’s most corrupt states and Brussels, which keeps its justice system under special monitoring, has praised magistrates for their efforts to curb graft.
Poland is already subject to an unprecedented EU rule-of-law procedure since end-2017 over its judiciary reforms. The process could in theory result in Poland losing its EU voting rights, though this is unlikely because all other 27 EU member states would have to agree. Hungary has vowed to veto such a move.
The Commission, guardian of the EU treaties, has already opened two infringement procedures against Poland, in mid-2017 and in mid-2018, over changes to retirement provisions for Polish judges and the possible impact on their independence.
The EU has also opened a rule-of-law procedure against Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has clashed with Brussels over his reforms of the judiciary, migration and the independence of media and non-governmental organisations.
Timmermans said a strengthened rule-of-law framework in the EU would better promote adherence to EU legal values and prevent rule-of-law breaches before they occur. The Commission will make proposals in that direction in June, Timmermans added.
Reporting By Jan Strupczewski, additional reporting by Clare Roth; Editing by Gareth Jones