Brussels steps up legal fight with Poland, demands daily fines

Brussels steps up legal fight with Poland, demands daily fines
Poland would have to pay daily fines for as long as it fails to respond to EU orders on reversing legal reforms

The European Commission has escalated its legal battle with Poland by asking the European Court of Justice to implement daily fines on the country until the Polish government reverses its controversial judicial reforms.

The Commission’s move sets a new precedent in its response to what it describes as efforts “to undermine the functioning of the Polish justice system”.

Two new steps have been taken to intervene in Poland’s judicial reforms. A request has been made to the ECJ to impose daily penalty payments for as long as Poland fails to respond to EU orders on legal reforms, while a letter of formal notice has been issued with a warning that the case will be returned to the ECJ if Poland does not respond adequately.

European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová tweeted that the Commission is “ready to work with the Polish authorities to find a way out of this crisis”.

Yet the EU’s latest move will provoke outrage among Polish politicians who have accused Brussels of “blackmail” in its threats of financial punishments.

Last week, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that Poland would not accept lectures from the EU on democracy.

“We fought for the rule of law and democracy during the terrible years of communism, but we have a much longer tradition of democracy and we do not want to be instructed by anyone in western Europe about what democracy is, about what the rule of law is, because we know best,” he wrote on Facebook.

Despite Morawiecki’s protestations to the contrary, there are fears that the Polish government’s legal reforms are intended to bring the judiciary under the wing of the ruling PiS party.

The focus of the EU’s concern is a controversial disciplinary chamber of the country’s supreme court, which is being seen as a means for punishing judges who issue rulings that run contrary to the government’s agenda. The government is also accused of packing higher courts with judges allied to the regime, but the disciplinary chamber may allow its influence to extend to lower courts too.

The Polish government claimed in August that the disciplinary chamber would be disbanded and then reformed, meaning “the subject of the dispute [with the EU] will disappear.”

So far, however, the promised changes have failed to materialise.

Political scientist Renata Mieńkowska from the University of Warsaw then told The Independent that “if the Commission accepts whatever is prepared by PiS, and if the ECJ does not proceed with fines, it will be the end of the fight for Polish democracy at the European level.”

It is meanwhile significant that the EU has chosen this particular moment to escalate a conflict which is also holding up the distribution of EU pandemic recovery funds to Poland.

Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal is due to rule later this month on whether or EU or Polish law should have primacy in the country, in a controversial case seen as key for the future of Poland’s legal status with the EU.

In making this request to the ECJ, the Commission has sent a warning shot across the bows that deviating from EU legal standards will not be tolerated.