BRUSSELS (AP) – Poland faced questions from its European Union partners Tuesday over an overhaul of its judicial system that is seen as a violation of Western democratic standards, while also taking the opportunity to explain its reasons for the contested changes.
In an unprecedented move, the EU’s European Commission launched a rule of law procedure against the Polish government over an alleged erosion of judicial independence in the country. Technically, the procedure could result in Poland losing its EU voting rights, though that is unlikely.
The hearing on Tuesday was a step in the process, but did not seem to deliver meaningful progress.
Frans Timmermans, the commission’s first vice president, said the participants did not get an indication the Polish government would accept more of the commission’s recommendations for compliance.
“We need to solve this issue in a European way, through dialogue. It is essential for the common future,” Timmermans said.
Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Konrad Szymanski, answered questions during the hearing. He said afterward it was not clear what the next steps would be in a dispute that had all concerned in “unknown land.”
Critics of the Polish government and the judicial overhaul protested in front of the EU’s Warsaw office while the hearing was underway in Brussels.
The overhaul of the Polish justice system began after the populist Law and Justice party came to power in 2015. The party says it is trying to reform a corrupt justice system that it claims is overseen by an unaccountable clique of judges.
The changes include giving the executive and legislative branches greater control over the judiciary, which opponents say could weaken the democratic system of checks and balances.
Speaking in Warsaw, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he “deplored” the fact that the EU’s so-called Article 7 procedure wasn’t closed after Poland showed “good will and readiness for compromise” by making some amendments to its judicial laws this year at the urging of the European Commission.
Morawiecki also defended the new judicial laws, saying they are needed to reform a branch of government power that was never properly democratized after communism ended in Poland.
“Our partners don’t understand what the post-communist reality looks like,” Morawiecki told a news conference. “The justice system had a problem with self-cleansing.”
Critics, however, see a power grab. Some have argued that nearly 30 years after the fall of communism, there are no longer a significant number of communist-era judges still on the bench.
As part of the overhaul, a new Supreme Court law that takes effect on July 3 could lead to the forced resignation of nearly 40 percent of current judges. Any wishing to stay could do so only if the president agrees.
The new laws also created a new “extraordinary appeal” chamber within the Supreme Court which could reopen cases from the previous 20 years on appeal from the prosecutor general, who is also the justice minister, or the ombudsman.
“The possibility that verdicts can be actually brought into doubt for a period of 20 years is quite unique,” Dutch minister Blok said.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn also expressed concern about changes to the judges’ terms.
“If there are judges who are named for a certain period, you can’t say during that time that now there are limits,” he told reporters. “We are not here to judge Poland or criticize Poland. We’re here to say that in Europe, the independence of the judiciary is sacred, so everything has to be done to protect it.”
Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed.