Analysis by Kirsten WILLIAMS
The European Commission has begun legal proceedings against Poland for violating the rule of law in an unprecedented and highly controversial move. Juncker’s Commission is using a power only vested in the institution two years ago – the ‘Rule of Law Framework’. This mechanism forces the country, in this case, Poland, to enter into a formal dialogue with Brussels, and can eventually lead to the stripping of voting rights for the ‘defendant’ country in the worst case scenario.
Despite Hungary being threatened with similar action in 2010, the mechanism has never before been used – indicating the gravity of the split between Brussels and Warsaw, which began with the election of the nationalist conservative Law and Justice Party in 2015. The Commission launched the probe in January after the new Polish government made major changes to the constitutional court and dismissed a number of state media managers. Brussels aired concerns about the appointment of judges, the change of procedure in the tribunal and media laws.
Although the EU was expected to make the results of the investigation public in March, this has been repeatedly pushed back. Finally, on the 18th May, Brussels published a Draft Opinion giving Poland one week to meet with the Commission’s Vice-President Frans Timmermans and demonstrate ‘progress’.
Six days later, Timmermans travelled to Warsaw at the last minute, saying, “I fully agree with the Polish prime minister when she says this is only a Polish problem and that we can only find a Polish solution”. Yet the talks failed to yield success, and the leader of the Law and Justice Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, threatened the EU with legal action at the European Court of Justice.
So far, the EU is treading very carefully, and few believe that the most severe sanctions will be imposed on Poland. On the other side, Warsaw is unlikely to press for a ‘Polexit’. The EU has now delayed the ruling on Poland after its seven-day ultimatum, in an attempt to avoid further damaging relations on the cusp of the Brexit referendum.
Nevertheless, this incident shows the increasingly fragile bond between the EU and its member states and the difficult line Brussels must tread between interference and simply upholding democratic standards. Polls suggest that 40% of the Polish population would consider leaving the EU, but as yet, the Polish government has rejected the idea that the country would leave the Union, as a major beneficiary. This Wednesday, the College of Commissioners will again sit down to discuss the Polish issue, but a decisive course of action seems increasingly unlikely.