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Poland defies EU as bloc criticises reform of its judicial system

Poland’s president has signed into law two bills, defying the EU, which has threatened sanctions over changes to its justice system.

Andrzej Duda made a statement on TV in which he confirmed he had approved the two new bills, which are the latest in a series of moves to reform the judiciary.

The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission (EC), decided on Tuesday to trigger Article 7 – a long dormant law that could result in Poland losing its voting rights.

The EC is concerned Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party has taken too much control of the legal system.

The first stage of Article 7 is an audit of how committed Poland is to the rule of law.

But analysts say it is unlikely to reach the second stage when voting rights would be withdrawn because all EU countries have to agree and Hungary has said it would veto any such move.

Zbigniew Ziobro, who is both justice minister and prosecutor general since Poland enacted its changes to the legal system, said Poland’s government “must continue the reforms”.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda speaks about the European Commission's decision to launch Article 7
Poland’s President Andrzej Duda speaks about the European Commission’s decision to launch Article 7

A new law already in place has given the Mr Ziobro the power to name the presidents of all ordinary courts – making them political appointees.

In the UK, judges are no longer appointed by members of the Government but by an independent commission.

Before that, Mr Duda swore in four judges to the country’s Constitutional Court, disregarding those that had been appointed by the previous parliament.

The two new bills, which were passed by the Polish parliament earlier this month, hand the Law and Justice party more control of judicial appointments and the supreme court.

The EC is expected to tell all 27 other EU member states there is “a clear risk of serious breach of the rule of law” in Poland.

EU Commissioner Franz Timmermans said the EU’s move was being carried out “for Poland, for Polish citizens”, so they can expect a fully independent judiciary in their country – a key principle of EU and component of EU human rights law.

Not all 27 countries are required to accept the EC’s move for Article 7 to be fully triggered, with only 22 needing to agree for it to be enacted. But, in the event that one country vetoes it, the move would not go through.

Protesters took to the streets across Poland in the summer after MPs adopted a controversial reform of the Supreme Court
Protesters took to the streets across Poland in the summer after MPs adopted a controversial reform of the Supreme Court

European Council president Donald Tusk said the conservative government has “practically liquidated judicial independence in Poland”.

Mr Tusk was Polish prime minister in a previous government which opposed many of the Law and Justice party’s policies.

Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen said Brussels was exerting an unacceptable amount of pressure on a sovereign member state.

“The Polish-Hungarian friendship and the Hungarian government’s commitment to treaties obliges us to step up against the Commission’s step in all forums,” Mr Semjen was quoted as saying.

Hungary has also been criticised for changes it has made to its judicial systems and, also on Wednesday, Romania’s senate approved part of a judicial overhaul criticised by the EC, the United States and the country’s own president as a threat to judicial independence.

Theresa May’s spokesman said she will raise concerns with her counterpart in Poland when they meet on Thursday.

“We place great importance on the respect for the rule of law and we expect all our partners to abide by international norms and standards,” the spokesman told reporters.

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