Brussels – The European Commission launched legal action against Poland over an aspect of its controversial judiciary reforms, which critics say threaten the country’s rule of law.
The commission decided last week to pursue the “infringement procedure” against Poland, however it had to wait for the publication of the law to officially start the action.
A letter of notice was sent from the commission to Warsaw following the publication. The right-wing government now has one month to respond to the concerns.
A breach of EU anti-discrimination laws
The reforms grant the justice minister the power to hire and fire the heads of lower courts, as well as extend the mandates of judges who have reached retirement age, sparking concerns about judicial independence in Poland.
Polish European Affairs Minister Konrad Szymanski said the EU’s legal action was “unfounded,” according to comments carried by the Polish news agency PAP.
The head of the Polish presidential office, Krzysztof Szczerski, said that the European Commission had “taken a path that leads nowhere.”
The EU officially took issue with the law because it introduced different retirement ages for judges – 60 for women and 65 for men – which is a breach of EU anti-discrimination laws.
But in its letter, the commission also raised concerns over the independence of Polish courts.
The EU is seeking clarification
“The new rules allow the minister of justice to exert influence on individual ordinary judges though, in particular, the vague criteria for the prolongation of their mandates thereby undermining the principle of irremovability of judges,” the commission said in a statement.
At this point, the EU is only seeking clarification from Poland with regard to how it comports with EU law.
If the Polish government fails to give a satisfactory response to the letter, the commission can issue a “reasoned opinion,” giving the country two months to comply with its requests.
If the recommendations are not heeded, the case can be referred to the European Court of Justice, whose decisions are binding on countries. The court can also impose a penalty on the member state for failure to comply with EU law.
The infringement procedure comes after President Andrzej Duda signed into law two of four pieces of legislation that give the Polish government vast powers over the appointment of judges.
The commission said that European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans also sent a letter to Poland’s foreign minister inviting him and the country’s justice minister for talks in Brussels.
“The commission’s hand is still extended to the Polish authorities, in the hope of a constructive dialogue,” Timmermans said.