June 26, 2018 / 9:44 AM / 21 days ago

EU in last-ditch appeal to Poland to respect basic EU values on courts

LUXEMBOURG/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union ministers made last-minute appeals to Poland on Tuesday to back away from its latest judicial reform, which they say puts its courts under political control in flagrant violation of one of the EU’s founding principles.

FILE PHOTO: Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok attends a meeting with Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in Cairo, Egypt May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Poland’s judicial changes, many of which are already in place, have been heavily criticised by rights groups, the EU’s executive Commission and political opposition at home, but Warsaw’s ruling nationalists have offered only limited concessions.

“There can’t be any political discounts when it comes to the rule of law,” said Germany’s Michael Roth, arriving in Luxembourg for the last meeting of European affairs and foreign ministers before the latest changes start taking effect on July 3.

“We need substantial advances, especially when it comes to the independence of the Polish judiciary,”

France and Germany were to present a joint stance and were firmly backed by Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok.

“It is an essential part of European cooperation that there is an independent judiciary everywhere,” Blok said.

As part of the broader overhaul, which critics say has already weakened democratic checks and balances, some 40 percent of Supreme Court judges will be forced out.

New judges on the body that validates election results will in future be appointed by the president, currently an ally of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).

PiS says the changes are needed to streamline a deeply inefficient system and rid Poland of vestiges of communism.

CHALLENGE TO EU VALUES

The prospect of an EU member flouting central EU tenets such as the separation of democratic powers or freedom of expression has emerged as a challenge to the future of the union, already damaged by Brexit.

An ongoing rule-of-law review by the bloc’s executive European Commission could in theory lead to a suspension of Poland’s EU voting rights. But Hungary - where Prime Minister Viktor Orban is also putting pressure on judges, media and non-governmental groups - has vowed to veto any such measure.

In practice, Poland is squandering leverage in negotiations for the next seven-year EU budget, from 2021.

The largest ex-communist EU state, it is currently the main beneficiary of EU funds. It is set for cuts in aid as it has become richer since the current budget was agreed, and the Union’s priorities are shifting from building basic infrastructure in the east to migration projects in the south.

Diego Garcia-Sayan, a U.N. rapporteur on judicial independence, said separately on Monday that he was “very worried about the far-reaching adverse effects that the reform of the judiciary is having – and will have – on the independence of Polish courts and tribunals”.

Reforms to Romania’s justice system have also drawn much controversy, highlighting the difficulty of building democracies in post-communist eastern Europe, even within the embrace of the EU.

Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Kevin Liffey

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