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EU triggers unprecedented censure mechanism against Poland

The EU triggered Article 7 over what it sees as “systemic threats” to the independence of the Polish judiciary, which could lead to a suspension of voting rights at the European Council.

world Updated: Dec 20, 2017 18:37 IST
European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans in Brussels on December 20, 2017.
European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans in Brussels on December 20, 2017.(AFP)

The European Commission launched unprecedented disciplinary proceedings against Poland on Wednesday over its highly controversial judicial reforms which Brussels says threaten the rule of law.

The bloc’s executive arm triggered article seven of the EU treaty over what it sees as “systemic threats” to the independence of the Polish judiciary from the right-wing government.

Never before used, article seven proceedings are seen as a “nuclear option” against an EU member state as they can lead -- albeit at the end of a complex process -- to a suspension of voting rights at the European Council.

“It is with a heavy heart that we have decided to initiate Article 7.1. But the facts leave us with no choice,” Commission vice president Frans Timmermans told reporters in Brussels.

The Dutch commissioner said that 13 laws adopted by Poland in the space of two years had created a situation where the government “can systematically politically interfere with the composition, powers, the adminstration and the functioning” of judicial authorities.

But Timmermans gave Warsaw three months to remedy the situation, saying Brussels could withdraw the measures if it did.

Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government began making changes to the judiciary after coming to power in late 2015 and says the reforms are needed to combat corruption and overhaul the judicial system still haunted by the communist era.

Brussels has repeatedly warned Warsaw that it views the changes as a threat to the democratic principles and rule of law Poland signed up to when it joined the European Union.

The initial phase set in motion by the EU’s commission, the bloc’s executive arm, allows member states to “determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach” of the rule of law. Such a ruling would need the backing of 22 states.

Any possible sanctions would only come at a second stage and would need unanimous support of all EU members -- apart from Poland.

Hungary has already said it would veto such a move, making sanctions unlikely, but Brussels is hoping the start of proceedings will have significant symbolic power.