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26 Jul, 2017 18:07

Poland blasts EU ‘blackmail’ over judicial reform after voting rights threat

Poland blasts EU ‘blackmail’ over judicial reform after voting rights threat

In the latest jab aimed at Brussels, Warsaw has accused the EU of blackmailing it over controversial judicial reform. The European Commission said it was ready to suspend Poland’s voting rights at the EU.

The confrontation came on Wednesday, after Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into law a bill allowing the justice minister to hire and fire chief justices in common courts.

The bill was one of three reforming Poland’s justice system pushed ahead by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), with the other two tightening government control over the Supreme Court and a special body protecting the independence of judges.

In a surprise move on Tuesday, Duda vetoed the two other bills, but his decision to greenlight the third still drew criticism from the European Commission, which said Poland was undermining EU values by compromising the rule of law.

“It is time to restore the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal and to either withdraw the laws reforming the judiciary or bring them into line with the Polish constitution and with European standards on judicial independence,” the commission’s first vice president, Frans Timmermans, told a news conference on Wednesday.

Brussels said it will send a legal letter demanding an explanation from Warsaw. Unless one is given to the EU's satisfaction within a month, the commission warned it may trigger Article 7 of the EU charter, the never-before-used provision that allows individual members to be stripped of their voting rights.

The EU can’t accept a system “which allows dismissing judges at will,” Timmermans added.

Warsaw blasted Timmermans’ warning, calling his statement “blackmail.”

"We won't accept blackmail from EU officials, especially blackmail that is not based on facts. All the laws prepared by the Polish parliament are in compliance with the constitution and democratic rules," government spokesman Rafal Bochenek told Polish news agency PAP.

“We regret that Timmermans, without knowing the draft laws and regulations of Polish law, has formulated negative criticism against Poland,” he added.

The three controversial bills, pushed forward by PiS, triggered mass protests in Poland, with demonstrators accusing the government of encroaching on democratic freedoms. But Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said her cabinet would not yield “to pressure from the street and abroad,” and indicated that Duda’s veto of two of the bills would not make it abandon its plans.

The EU’s ability to punish Warsaw remains to be seen. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has already vowed to block any attempt to suspend Poland’s voting rights. Hungary itself is being subjected to pressure from Brussels for opposing groups that Budapest sees as agents of foreign influence in the country.

Poland and Hungary are also aligned with the Czech Republic in their opposition to the EU’s decision to resettle asylum seekers according to quotas assigned to all members of the bloc.