Poland has been ordered to pay a penalty of 1 million euros (£845,000) per day until it complies with the European Union’s top court’s order to scrap disciplinary rules for judges.
The Court of Justice of the European Union delivered the decision on Wednesday to prevent what it called ‘serious and irreparable harm’ to the EU’s legal order and values amid an increasingly bitter row over the rule of law.
Poland has been embroiled in a long-running dispute with Brussels over judicial reforms Warsaw says undermine the independence of its courts, with some fearing the feud could cause a ‘Polexit’ and a break-up of the EU.
The row heated up in July when the EU’s top court ordered Poland to suspend the disciplinary chamber of its Supreme Court, which is seen by critics as a way to pressure judges to rule on favour of Poland’s ruling populist party.
Poland has said it will abolish the chamber as part of broader reforms, but has not yet presented detailed plans.
‘In the ruling issued today, the Vice-President of the Tribunal obliged Poland to pay…a penalty payment of EUR 1 million per day, counting from the date on which this ruling was delivered to Poland,’ the Luxembourg-based court said in a statement.
Poland has been ordered to pay a penalty of 1 million euros (£845,000) per day until it complies with the European Union’s top court’s order to scrap disciplinary rules for judges. Pictured: Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Angela Merkel on October 22 at the EU Summit
Which EU laws is Poland disputing?
What is it? This sets out the founding principle of the EU, which is to create a Union and develop ‘an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.’
In dispute: Poland argues the way the law is being applied blocks the country from applying its own constitution and could force it to apply unconstitutional laws laid down by EU courts
What Poland’s court said: The EU is acting outside of its remit by preventing the country from acting as a sovereign state, and that Polish law should take precedence
What is it? This establishes the principle of ‘sincere cooperation’ between states which must ‘work together to implement’ EU laws.
In dispute: Poland again argues that the way the law is being interpreted will stop it from applying its own laws or compel it to apply unconstitutional laws if they are laid down by EU courts
Court ruling: Judges again found the EU is acting outside of its remit by preventing the country from acting as a sovereign state, and that Polish law must take precedence
What is it? This establishes the authority of the European Court of Justice which ‘shall ensure that in the interpretation and application of… the law is observed.’
In dispute: Poland says the article, as applied, grants the EU the power to oversee the appointment of judges made by the Polish President
Court ruling: Judges found that, by interfering in the process of appointing judges, the EU is preventing Poland from acting as a sovereign nation and that the President’s decision-making must take precedence
The European Court of Justice imposed the penalty after a weeklong war of words in which Poland told the EU to stay out of its judicial affairs while other EU member states insisted that Warsaw could not continue to hog subsidies while disregarding the bloc’s democratic and rule of law principles at will.
‘You cannot pocket all the money but refuse the values,’ Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said, warning Poland not to treat the EU like ‘a cash machine.’
The Court of Justice decided to syphon off some of those subsidy funds, saying the daily fine was ‘necessary in order to avoid serious and irreparable harm to the legal order of the European Union and to the values on which that Union is founded, in particular that of the rule of law.’
The EU’s executive commission had requested the penalty until the Polish government acts to improve the functioning of the Polish Supreme Court and suspends new laws deemed to undermine judicial independence.
The point of contention is the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court, a body that the 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 European Court of Justice ordered the suspension of the disciplinary chamber, but it is still functioning.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the European Parliament last week that the chamber will be abolished, but he gave no precise timeframe.
Deputy Justice Minister Sebastian Kaleta said the demand for 1 million euros was ‘usurpation and blackmail’ in comments posted on Twitter.
The move towards fines comes after Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused the EU of ‘starving’ and ‘punishing’ his country by withholding £48billion in Covid relief money after Warsaw ruled that its constitution took precedence over European law.
The ruling led to fears of a ‘Polexit’ and a break-up of the EU after the Warsaw ruling that national law takes precedence over diktats from Brussels.
Belgium’s Prime Minister said on Wednesday his Polish counterpart was ‘playing with fire when waging war with your European colleagues for internal political reasons.’
After the EU threatened sanctions against Poland, Morawiecki responded earlier on Monday with comments that the bloc is starting World War III and ‘putting a gun to our head’.
When asked if Poland could use its veto power to block legislation in retaliation, Morawiecki told the Financial Times: ‘If they start the third world war, we are going to defend our rights with any weapons which are at our disposal.’
The Court of Justice of the European Union delivered the decision on Wednesday to prevent what it called ‘serious and irreparable harm’ to the EU’s legal order and values amid an increasingly bitter row over the rule of law
The row between Poland and the EU
Relations between Poland and the EU have been rocky for years and reached a new low earlier this month after the tribunal ruled that Polish laws take precedence over those of the 27-nation bloc, which Poland joined in 2004.
The ruling escalated lingering tensions over democratic standards between Poland’s right-wing nationalist government and EU institutions in Brussels.
The dispute is largely over changes to the Polish judicial system which give the ruling party more power over the courts. Polish authorities say they seek to reform a corrupt and inefficient justice system.
The European Commission believes the changes erode the country’s democratic system of checks and balances.
Ultimately, at the heart of the row is the question of who should have the most power within the bloc – each individual nation over its citizens or the EU institutions over the member nations. It was the prime mover behind the exit of Britain from the EU, and it has stirred passions in several Eastern and Central European nations like Poland and Hungary.
The whole idea behind the EU is that a united front will make the 27 nations a formidable power in the world, while they would be bystanders just as individual countries. But even if member states are happy to see that power used in international relations, some abhor it when it affects them.
Morawiecki described Poland as a nation that is being intimidated and attacked by an EU whose top court issues rulings that aim to take more and more power away from its nations. He insisted that the EU must remain a union of sovereign states until all its members agree by treaty to give up more of their own national powers.
‘We are now seeing a creeping revolution taking place by way of verdicts of the European Court of Justice,’ he said.
Morawiecki defended his country’s stance that the highest law in Poland is the country’s constitution. He insisted that Poland abides by EU treaties and brushed off comment from opponents of his government who fear that the court’s ruling has put the country on a path to a possible exit from the EU.
Morawiecki also said he sees double standards in the EU rulings on Poland’s changes to its judiciary, noting that each country has its own judicial system, with politicians electing judges in some cases.
The Polish tribunal majority ruling – in response to a case brought by Morawiecki – said Poland’s EU membership did not give the European Court of Justice supreme legal authority and did not mean that Poland had shifted its legal sovereignty to the EU.
Morawiecki asked for the review after the European Court of Justice ruled in March that Poland’s new regulations for appointing judges to the Supreme Court could violate EU law. The ruling obliged Poland’s government to discontinue the rules that gave politicians influence over judicial appointments. To date, Poland has not complied.
Last month, the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice to impose daily fines on Poland until it improves the functioning of the Polish Supreme Court and suspends the laws that were deemed to undermine judicial independence.
Morawiecki told EU lawmakers during the debate that a disputed disciplinary chamber of Poland’s Supreme Court will be closed, because it did not meet expectations, without offering a clear timeline.
EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer took issue with the violent imagery, saying: ‘The EU is a project that very successfully contributed to establishing a lasting peace among its member states.
‘There is no place for rhetoric referring to war.’
‘You are playing a dangerous game,’ De Croo said.
‘This is about the overwhelming majority of member states – from the Baltics to Portugal – who agree our Union is a union of values, not a cash machine,’ De Croo said, alluding to the fact that Poland has long been a major net recipient of EU funds.
The comments follow years of disputes over changes Poland’s government has made to the country’s courts.
The EU believes the changes erode democratic checks and balances, and the European Commission is holding up billions of euros to Poland earmarked in a pandemic recovery plan.
Morawiecki faced less sanguine criticism from his Polish political opponents, many of whom are deeply worried about Poland’s increasing isolation within the EU.
‘I have the impression that Mr Morawiecki has recently had some problems with English or that he has lost his mind,’ tweeted Marek Belka, a former left-wing Polish prime minister who is now a member of the European Parliament.
Donald Tusk, the head of the leading opposition party in Poland, reacted to the ‘war’ comment by saying: ‘In politics, stupidity is the cause of most serious misfortunes.’
The government spokesman, Piotr Müller, told Polish media that the prime minister’s comment amounted to hyperbole and should not be taken literally.
The nationalist ruling party in Poland, Law and Justice, has been in conflict with Brussels since winning power in 2015 over a number of matters, including migration and LGBT rights.
The longest running dispute, however, has centred on the Polish government´s attempts to take political control of the judiciary.
The ruling by Poland’s Constitutional court, which is filled with ruling party’s loyalists, was made after Morawiecki asked it to rule on whether EU or national law has primacy.
Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said last week that it was the first time ever that a national court found ‘that the EU treaties are incompatible with the national constitution.’
‘This ruling calls into question the foundations of the European Union,’ von der Leyen said. ‘It is a direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order.’
Poland’s decision has cast the Eastern European nation’s future in the EU into doubt, six years after the UK voted to leave the bloc in 2016 and kickstarted a continent-wide debate about the role of the 27-nation bloc.
Warsaw has long been at odds with Brussels over democratic standards and the independence of its judiciary.
Opinion polls show Poles are overwhelmingly EU-enthusiastic, with over 80 percent backing membership of the bloc that has given their country billions of euros in subsidies, turbo-charging its development.
But relations have become increasingly strained since the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power.
The fine imposed Wednesday comes on top of a 500,000-euro daily fine the Court of Justice ordered Poland last month to pay for having ignored its injunction to close the Turow brown coal mine. The ruling came in a dispute between Poland and the Czech Republic.
Poland argues it cannot do without some 7% of its energy that the Turow power plant is generating. Morawiecki has indicated Poland is prepared to pay, and can afford it.
These additional burdens on the state budget come as there is a possibility Poland will not be getting some 36 billion euros in EU funds earmarked for recovery from the pandemic because of the rule of law despite with Brussels.
Morawiecki earlier this year had asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the primacy of EU law following a series of rulings from the bloc’s top court against Poland’s disputed judicial reforms.
The Constitutional Court itself underwent controversial reforms in 2016 designed by the PiS government, leading critics both in Poland and abroad to argue it is stacked with PiS allies.
Poland and Hungary are bitterly opposed to agreements negotiated last year as the EU’s £1.5trillion Covid recovery budget was agreed, which linked the funding to enforcing laws such as equality and human rights legislation.
Both countries are led by right-wing populist parties who have been involved in long-running spats with the EU over the independence of courts, freedom of the press, and LGBT rights.