European Commission puts Poland rule of law under microscope

By Marine Laouchez, AFP

BRUSSELS, Belgium–The European Union’s powerful executive announced Sunday it would discuss the state of the rule of law in Poland after the country’s hard-right government pushed through changes to the judiciary and media. The unprecedented move by the European Commission is the first step in a potentially punitive process aimed at buttressing democracy and rights in the 28 EU states. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker “has placed a first debate on the rule of law in Poland on the agenda of the Commission’s meeting on Jan. 13,” a statement in Brussels said. The move comes on the heels of legal moves giving Poland’s conservative government the power to directly appoint the heads of public broadcasters and a controversial law reforming the country’s constitutional court. The changes have triggered an outcry from rights watchdogs and prompted escalating warnings from the Commission that it could intervene, including two letters from its vice president, Frans Timmermans, asking Warsaw for information. Earlier Sunday, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper quoted Commissioner Gunther Oettinger as saying “many reasons exist … to activate the ‘Rule of Law mechanism’ and for us to place Warsaw under monitoring.” The mechanism was set up in March 2014 to tackle “systemic threats” to the rule of law and other cherished European values. The upcoming Commission debate constitutes the first stage of a three-step procedure. During the initial phase, the Commission will collect information and assess whether there are clear indications of a systemic threat to the rule of law.

If the threat is confirmed, it will initiate dialogue with the state which will be given a chance to respond.

Ultimately, if there is no satisfactory response, the Commission can propose invoking Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union. Under this, a member can be stripped of its voting rights in EU institutions if it is guilty of serious and persistent breaches of the rule of law. However, the punishment has never been meted out — and it also has to be approved by a so-called qualified majority of states under the EU’s system of weighted voting. The Commission said it was “too early to speculate about the possible next stages” in the procedure.