BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union moved Tuesday to force Poland to comply with the rulings of Europe’s top court with plans to seek daily fines against the nationalist government in Warsaw in a long-running dispute over Poland's judicial system.
In a rare move, the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, said it wants the European Court of Justice to “impose financial penalties on Poland to ensure compliance” with one of the tribunal's orders from July.
The commission, which supervises the respect of EU laws, said it wants the Luxembourg-based court to impose “a daily penalty” on Poland until it improves the functioning of the Polish Supreme Court and suspends new laws that were deemed to undermine judicial independence.
The point of contention is Poland's Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court, a body that the right-wing ruling party gave the power to discipline judges. Many Polish judges view the chamber as a tool to pressure judges to rule in favor of the governing authorities. In July, the ECJ ordered it to be suspended but it is still functioning.
To date, while Poland's ruling party has filled the ranks of the top courts, there are many lower court judges who act independently and have issued rulings that go against the government’s interests.
The commission did not seek an exact fine, but in the only other similar case — an illegal logging dispute also involving Poland in 2017 — the court ordered the Polish government to pay 100,000 euros ($119,000) a day until it complied. It's unclear how long the ECJ might take to rule.
The EU's executive body also launched the first step in new legal action against Poland for not complying with a separate ECJ decision that the country’s rules for disciplining judges doesn't conform with EU law. Brussels said if Warsaw doesn't respond satisfactorily within two months that it will take the case back before the court.
In a tweet, European Commission Vice-President Vera Jourova said “the rulings of the European Court of Justice must be respected across the EU."
In Warsaw, Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said the EU had no right to interfere in the organization of the judicial system in EU nations, alleging that the EU is applying double standards to Poland. He also accused the EU of carrying a “hybrid war” against Poland’s legal system.
But justice activists in Poland welcomed the move. Maria Ejchart-Dubois, a lawyer with Free Courts, a group fighting for the independence of judges, said that fines and legal action are the “only way to stop the Polish authorities.”
She told The Associated Press that despite the government’s vow to abolish the Disciplinary Chamber, the body scheduled 48 meetings in September and commissioners are instituting further proceedings against Polish judges.
Legal observers see some of the justice policy changes imposed by Poland’s right-wing government as an attempt to undermine the power of EU laws within the country and even step away from the bloc. Poland joined the EU in 2004, agreeing to abide by its rules and regulations.
Concerns over democratic backsliding in Poland are also holding up the country's access to billions of euros in European money to help revive its economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Last week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that nobody has the right to lecture his country on democracy, as talks with Brussels on access to the recovery fund dragged on.
Earlier this year, Morawiecki asked Poland's top court to rule on whether the Polish Constitution or EU law has primacy in the central European nation.
The Constitutional Court has been delaying its judgement, with the next session now set for Sept. 22. Should it give precedence to Polish law, the ruling would pose a threat to the EU’s legal order.
Vanessa Gera in Poland contributed to this report.