Poland was suspended from the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary on Monday because the body that nominates the country’s judges is no longer seen as being independent of political control.
The Polish Judicial Council (KRS) was stripped of its voting rights and excluded from participation in ENCJ activities after a fact-finding trip by the organization, which unites EU countries’ judicial systems.
“The extreme circumstances of this particular case have led to the decision just taken,” said the ENCJ, adding that “member states are free to organise their judicial systems in a way that they see fit, but there are some minimum standards that have to be complied with.”
Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party government has revamped Poland’s judicial system since taking power in 2015 and many judges have been removed.
The ENCJ is particularly concerned about recent changes to the KRS, which is supposed to be independent of political control when proposing nominations to the bench. However, the KRS is now dominated by members chosen by politicians, raising fears that judicial autonomy has been undermined.
The decision comes during a week when the European Commission is likely to consider further action in an infringement procedure launched against Poland over a new law affecting the country’s Supreme Court. The law imposes a lower retirement age, removing many of the court’s judges including its president. Critics say the law violates the Polish constitution.
The government argues that the changes are needed to root out judges tied to the old communist system and to make the courts more efficient, and that Brussels doesn’t have the right to interfere in the legal systems of member countries.
The Polish Supreme Court asked the European Court of Justice to rule on the new law, and said the law should be suspended until the ECJ has time to issue an opinion. President Andrzej Duda has ignored that appeal, and there is now confusion over which judges are members of the court.
Poland will be discussed at the General Affairs Council (made up of EU foreign affairs or Europe ministers) on Tuesday, where Konrad Szymański, the Polish European affairs minister, will present Warsaw’s arguments. Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, who has taken the lead in pursing the rule-of-law case against Poland, is due to present the issue to the College of Commissioners on Wednesday, after which the infringement procedure may be moved to the ECJ.
Last December, the Commission for the first time initiated so-called Article 7 proceedings against Poland, beginning a process that theoretically could lead to Poland losing its voting rights in the Council.