WARSAW — Poland’s right-wing rulers continued defying Brussels on Wednesday, at the same time as Hungary became the first EU member to have a disciplinary procedure launched against it by the European Parliament for violating the bloc’s democratic norms.
Polish President Andrzej Duda sent letters to seven Supreme Court justices on Wednesday, telling them that they were being withdrawn from the court under a new law that lowered the retirement age of judges to 65. The court has contested the legality of the law, and asked the European Court of Justice to rule on the issue, but Duda has not waited for the EU court’s verdict.
It came a day after Duda, a former member of the European Parliament, unleashed a fierce verbal attack on the EU, calling it an “illusory community from which there are little results for us.”
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) government is engaged in a bitter battle with Brussels over its deep reforms of the courts, which European institutions see as part of a broader attempt by the party to bring the judicial system under political control. Like Hungary, Poland faces a so-called Article 7 process, which could see it lose its voting rights as an EU member.
Poland has received more than €100 billion in EU funds that have helped transform the country since it joined the bloc in 2004.
Małgorzata Gersdorf, the Supreme Court’s president who is also supposed to be retired under the new law, refused to comply, showing up for work on Wednesday morning. Under the Polish constitution, her six-year term of office expires in 2020.
“I’ll be directing the work of the Supreme Court today,” she said.
Duda’s office has designated another judge to head the court, although he told the media that he still recognizes Gersdorf as being the court’s president.
Poland is closely allied with Hungary in resisting pressure from Brussels. In Wednesday’s European Parliament vote, MEPs from Law and Justice sided with Hungary’s Fidesz parliamentarians in voting against the Article 7 resolution.
However, Law and Justice insists that it is not against membership in the EU — which is hugely popular in Poland. Poland has received more than €100 billion in EU funds that have helped transform the country since it joined the bloc in 2004, and millions of Poles have benefitted from the right to travel and work across the EU.
Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS and Poland’s de facto ruler, recently underlined that his party has no interest in a Polexit. “Poles want to be in Europe and the European Union,” he said at a party conference earlier this month.
That wasn’t the message sent by Duda on Tuesday when he spoke in the southeastern town of Leżajsk.
“I want citizens to be convinced that someone is thinking about them, and not about some illusory community from which there are little results for us,” said Duda. “A community is needed here, in Poland — our own community that focuses on our matters, because they are the most important matters for us.”
“We have the right to rule on our own here and decide on our own what should be the shape of Poland,” he told the cheering crowd, after denouncing Europe for leaving Poland in Russia’s clutches after World War II.
Duda’s words prompted a rebuke from former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski, who wrote in an open letter that his comments were “untrue and dangerous” and undermined Polish national interests.
Duda’s chief of staff, Krzysztof Szczerski, said in a statement Wednesday that he was “very surprised” that Duda’s comments were seen as being controversial. What the president said was “right and strong” and “one cannot create an artificial community that is imposed on states,” he said.
Duda’s call for Poland to be left alone is unlikely to be heeded by Brussels. On Tuesday the Polish Supreme Court sent yet another request to the ECJ asking for a ruling on whether members of the National Judiciary Council — a body that nominates new judges — were elected in compliance with the Polish constitution and European standards.
“The European Union is a community of law. Respecting the rule of law and abiding by Court decisions are not optional” — Jean-Claude Juncker
The ECJ isn’t expected to rule for some time, and it’s not clear how Warsaw will react to any negative verdicts.
While Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin said the government would “ignore” ECJ rulings, Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz recently sent a more positive message to the tribunal, saying: “There is no fear that we could demonstratively not accept an unfavorable ruling of the ECJ.”
That was a point stressed by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his State of the Union speech on Wednesday.
“We need to be very clear on one point: judgements from the Court of Justice must be respected and implemented. This is vital. The European Union is a community of law. Respecting the rule of law and abiding by Court decisions are not optional.”