EU crisis: Brussels’ ‘declaration of war’ on member state sparked bitter row

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The governing Law and Justice Party has for years tried to assume control of the Polish judiciary in a move that threatens the independence of its courts. Judges involved in politically sensitive cases, or who have expressed opposition to challenges to judicial independence, are frequently threatened with disciplinary proceedings and even criminal charges, and in many cases are subjected to state-led campaigns of intimidation. This comes after the Polish government took control of the appointment, promotion and discipline of all Polish judges.

In January this year, the Polish government and the courts both issued contradictory rulings on the legality of reforms to the judiciary, plunging the country into political chaos.

Marcin Matczak, a professor of law at the University of Warsaw, said at the time: “This is an extreme escalation by the Polish government. It has run out of arguments so it is resorting to brute force.”

A month prior to the legal row, the Polish supreme court ruled that the National Council of the Judiciary and the new disciplinary chamber were unlawfully constituted.

The government responded with legislative proposals to make it illegal for any judge to question the legality of its appointments – effectively banning judges from complying with the supreme court ruling.

The row over democracy in Poland led to tensions in the EU, as Brussels aimed to rein in both the Polish and Hungarian governments in their reported undemocratic practices.

Terry Reintke, a German Green MEP who sat on the European Parliament’s justice and home affairs committee, said: “This is more than bad news for democracy and freedom in Europe.

“We need full solidarity with all Polish citizens who stand up for the rule of law. Polish judges are European judges. The independence of the judiciary cannot be negotiable.”

The European Parliament passed a resolution in the aftermath of the legal row, stating that the situation in both Poland and Hungary had deteriorated since EU authorities triggered a sanctions procedure known as Article 7.

Mr Matczak said: “This is not just a declaration of war on the Polish legal order. It is a declaration of war on our place in Europe.”

The Article 7 procedure, sometimes referred to as the nuclear option, can ultimately lead to a country being stripped of its voting rights.

Member states have rounded on Hungary and Poland in recent years amid rows over the eastern European countries’ disregard for the rule of law and democracy.

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Backed by strong electoral mandates, their populist governing parties were said to be interfering with the independence of the judiciary and increasing state control of other institutions, including the media.

When Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, tried to restrict coronavirus recovery funding for countries not abiding by the rule of law mechanism, Hungary’s Viktor Orban unleashed a furious tirade.

He said: in July: “I don’t know what is the personal reason for the Dutch Prime Minister to hate me or Hungary, but he is attacking so harshly, and making very clear that because Hungary in his opinion does not respect the rule of law, [it] must be punished financially.

“That’s his position, which is not acceptable because there is no decision about what is the rule of law situation in Hungary.

“If the deal is blocked, it’s not because of me but because of the Dutch guy.”

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