Po-long, Farewell?: Polish judicial reform raises controversy and questions around its EU membership

April 21, 2020

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

The amendments that Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party made to the law on the judiciary on 20 December 2019 have been met with much backlash from the EU.  Fundamental democratic principles and the rule of law have been placed at risk.

What does this mean?

Across the EU, whether through Urgent Opinions declared by the Commission, or the European Court of Justice’s ruling on the lowering of retirement ages for judges, various concerns as to the Polish judicial reforms have arisen.  

One reform raising controversy is the lowering of the retirement age for judges. If seeking to continue work beyond this lowered age range, justice minister’s approval would be required. Despite Zbigniew Ziobro, the Polish Minister of Justice, claiming that such reforms are necessarily responsive to the “overgrown” Polish judiciary, they have raised much outcry from Polish judges such as Przymusinski, who has declared that such powers could result in removing politically “inconvenient people from judging”.  

Despite warnings against such reforms in December, further legislation was passed to prevent judges questioning the legality of its appointments. Most recently, a Polish judge who challenged the judicial reforms has not only been suspended, but also reprimanded with a 40% wage cut, evidencing the predictions made by Przymusinski. Therefore, the government’s wide new power to appoint and discipline judges in this manner demonstrates how these reforms are placing judicial autonomy at risk.

What's the big picture effect?

As of yet, the continued commitment of the PiS party to these judicial reforms  shows no sign of slowing down. Rather, tensions between the EU and Poland appear to be rising. As recognised by Poland’s very own Supreme Court, it was acknowledged that there is an observable “contradiction between Polish and EU law”. As a result, it is predicted “with high probability” that further intervention from the EU is inevitable. With the European Commission having already identified “a serious breach of values on which the Union is founded”, unless Poland realigns with the founding principles, then leaving the EU could be a necessary step. 

Ultimately, these judicial reforms are highly significant in representing the tensions not only between politics and law within Poland’s domestic framework, but also on a wider scale with the EU. Not only do the concerns of the EU need to be appropriately addressed, but central democratic principles and the rule of law must be realised.  If these judicial reforms continue to be prioritised and extended without regard for EU law, as declared by the country’s Supreme Court “the need to leave the European Union” will become a real possibility.

Report written by Karolina Smolicz

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