BRUSSELS – The European Union raised the stakes to their highest level against Poland on Wednesday over judicial overhauls that Brussels calls undemocratic, laying the groundwork for an unprecedented punishment after months of acrimony.
The EU’s executive body triggered a never-used sanctions procedure, taking an unprecedented step aims to bring Poland back into line. However, the move risks alienating Warsaw even further from its EU counterparts while exposing the EU’s weakness in enforcing its political vision.
“Today in Poland the constitutionality of legislation can no longer be guaranteed,” said Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, adding that this is a risk for the functioning of the bloc’s internal market and the EU as a whole.
The final stage of sanctions – including a suspension of Polish voting rights in the EU – would likely be vetoed by at least one other member.
Still, Poland faces the stigma of being deemed in breach of EU values by a majority of its peers.
The European Commission and an international panel of constitutional law experts, known as the Venice Commission, have said changes to Poland’s judicial system are a threat to Poland’s rule of law and the separation of powers.
The commission’s decision comes after two years of failed attempts by Brussels to convince the government in Warsaw to undo the changes to its judicial system.
The Polish government has maintained the changes are needed to purge judges appointed during the country’s Communist past.
“Poland is as devoted to the rule of law as the rest of the EU,” tweeted Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
He said, “Poland’s sovereignty and the idea of United Europe can be reconciled.”
The sanctions procedure, informally dubbed as the “nuclear option,” comes as the EU is embarking in more complex negotiations with the UK about its future relationship after Brexit.
In Warsaw, ruling party lawmakers quickly described the commission’s move as a plot to force Poland to take Muslim refugees.
Others said the opposition was working with German interests to subjugate Poles.
“We are a child to be beaten, because we do not blindly follow their orders,” said Ryszard Czarnecki, a member of the European Parliament from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party.
Timmermans said that if Poland over the next three months reverses the legislative changes, the commission will withdraw its recommendation to trigger the sanctions procedure.
“We continue to stand ready for dialogue, every day, whenever the Polish authorities would deem it possible,” he said.
The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, invited Morawiecki for a “working lunch or dinner” on Jan. 9. A spokesman for Morawiecki said the premier will attend that meeting.
Poland is unlikely to face the full brunt of sanctions because like-minded EU member Hungary would probably veto advancing Wednesday’s recommendation that far.
The first stage of the procedure, where 22 out of EU’s 27 countries (Poland is excluded) will vote on whether they believe Poland is in serious breach of EU values, is expected to pass early next year. The leaders of France and Germany at a summit last week signaled they will be in favor of opening this procedure.
EU concerns over the health of Poland’s democratic institutions emerged in 2015, when the nationalist Law and Justice won a majority in the country’s parliament. Soon after, the party began to pass laws – many of them approved after midnight – limiting the authority and independence of the country’s top court. The tribunal has repeatedly issued rulings saying those laws are unconstitutional.
But the top court’s rulings only are legally binding once physically printed by a government-run printer, and the ruling party, which controls access to the printer, has refused to publish them.
This month, the party passed a law to forcibly retire more than one-third of judges on the country’s Supreme Court – its highest court for criminal and election-related issues.
Lawyers and election officials say they were not consulted on that law, which also reorganizes how the court is staffed and held accountable.
Even the country’s deputy justice minister said he first saw the law when it was published online.
Still, Law and Justice says it is giving Polish citizens what they voted for in 2015, when 38 percent of voters backed the party.
That percentage was enough to give Law and Justice a majority of seats in the legislature.
“There is no other way to impose responsibility on judges except this one,” said Marcin Warchol, the deputy justice minister. “Poles elected their government. This government is doing nothing else except realizing the promises from its electoral campaign.”
Timmermans of the EU said a political mandate from voters doesn’t give nations a free pass for any kind of legislative changes, disregarding EU rules.
Human-rights advocacy group Amnesty International said the commission took a “historic decision” that will send a clear message to Polish authorities that “trampling on people’s rights won’t be tolerated.”