The EU has triggered the “nuclear option” against Poland

Duda decided.
Duda decided.
Image: Reuters/Kacper Pempel
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The European Commission is set to trigger a “nuclear option” against Poland, a member state whose right-wing, populist government has pushed through judicial reforms that are seen, both abroad and within the country, as a threat to the country’s democracy.

The so-called “article 7,” which is supposed to assure that all member states have “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights,” could potentially strip Poland of its voting rights in Brussels.

The decision was announced on Dec. 20. Some in Poland were still holding out hope that the country’s president, Andrzej Duda, would veto the two judiciary bills in question and save the country from the process, which the EU has never implemented until now. But later the same day, the president announced he signed the judicial reforms into law.

Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the European Commission, did not mince words when explaining the body’s decision. “It is with a heavy heart that we have decided to initiate Article 7.1”, he said. “But the facts leave us with no choice.”

Within a period of two years a significant number of laws have been adopted—13 in total—which put in serious risk the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers… Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country’s judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority. In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law.

The Polish prime minister, newly installed by his party, countered:

Earlier in December, both chambers of the Polish parliament passed sweeping reforms of the country’s judicial system, which have been a subject of a bitter political fight with Brussels for the past two years and the contentious provisions of which have brought out thousands of protesters to the country’s streets.

The laws would allow the governing party, Law and Justice, to exert unprecedented control over Polish judges.

The body that chooses lower-court judges would be appointed by lawmakers, and not by other judges, as was the case up until now. The Supreme Court would be able to review judgements by lower courts, including retroactively, for decisions going as far back as 1997. Meanwhile, roughly 40% of the current Supreme Court judges could be soon replaced because of a provision that lowers the retirement age from 70 to 65. The president will be able to decide which judges above age 65 are allowed to stay.

Since Law and Justice took over Polish politics in 2015, it has been systematically dismantling and rebuilding to suit its own agenda everything from the country’s constitutional tribunal to its education system. It has also been internationally criticized for its crackdown on the country’s free press.