The sweeping legislation, which is due to come into force on 3 July, would lead to the enforced retirement of judges over 65, and allow the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) to enact a series of reshuffles within the country’s highest courts, allegedly to strengthen its grip on power.
Critics say that the reforms are merely an attempt by PiS to cement its grip on power in the country.
Judicial reform in Poland was debated in plenary with European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans this week.
MEPs have joined Polish NGOs in petitioning the Commission to ask the European Court of Justice for an interim order to halt the changes to the Polish Supreme Court which would force up to 40 per cent of judges into early retirement.
Nobel peace prize winner Lech Wałęsa, professional organisations and artists, plus a group of international law scholars and the Society of Journalists have also sent letters to Commission
President Jean-Claude Juncker calling for the executive to intervene before the new law enters into force next month.
It is said that the law may even depose the court’s first president, despite the fact her constitutionally mandated six-year term is not set to end until 2020.
Addressing the plenary in Strasbourg, European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans called the situation “very worrying.”
He said the Commission had asked the Council to organise a formal hearing of Poland in the context of the ‘Article 7’ procedure, which could lead to the suspension of Warsaw’s EU voting rights.
He said, “Finding a solution urgently is a matter of common interest for all member states and all EU institutions.
“It is the Commission’s sincere hope that Poland will now urgently address the key concerns identified by us. In particular, it is indispensable that urgent action be taken by the Polish government to address the situation of the Supreme Court judges before the 3 July - because that is when the decisions about the retirements become final.
Parliament’s Greens/EFA group has organised a cross-party letter calling on the Commission to “take immediate steps” to put the brakes on Polish judicial reforms.
The letter is signed by its joint leaders, German MEP Ska Keller and Belgian deputy Philippe Lamberts, along with EPP group leader Manfred Weber, his S&D group counterpart Udo Bullmann,
ALDE group leader Guy Verhofstadt and Gabi Zimmmer, who heads the GUE/NGL group.
The letter calls for the Commission to “immediately start an infringement procedure, in parallel to the Article 7 procedure, and refer the Polish Supreme Court Act to the European Court of Justice.”
Speaking on Thursday, Lamberts said, “It is no exaggeration to say that democracy is being called into question within the European Union. The separation of powers is an essential bulwark against abuse, but it is being seriously undermined in Poland.
“We welcome the action already taken by Timmermans but we must recognise that the results so far have been meagre. The Polish government knows that it can count on its allies in the Council, in particular on Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.
“Time is of the essence: if nothing is done soon, then a large part of the Polish Supreme Court will be automatically retired, paving the way for the government to appoint judges in its favour. We call on the Commission to use every means in its possession to prevent this from happening, including by referring the matter urgently to the European Court of Justice.”
Polish MEP Janusz Lewandowski was among several members who said they backed the case going to the ECJ.
He said the current changes in the judiciary were designed “to weaken the EU and also to weaken Polish links to the West.”
He told the plenary, “We must defend an independent judiciary and the rights of Polish people.”
Socialist MEP Josef Weidenholzer said he agreed with such sentiments, adding, “I do understand that some people in Poland are angry and feel left behind. If we do not deliver more will turn their backs on democracy
“But what we see in Poland now is very worrying not least because the constitution is at stake. Some 40 per cent of judges in Poland will be forced into early retirement and, in three weeks there may be no independent judges in Poland.
“This could mean the end of checks and balances in Poland and we must not accept this. The situation is serious and urgent and we are obliged to act now, not afterwards.”
He added, “I ask the Commission to stand behind Timmermans and refer the Polish case to the Court of Justice. If we give up Poland we give up Europe.”
Dutch Liberal member Sophie in ‘t Veld was also vocal in her criticism of efforts to “undermine” the judiciary in Poland, saying, “We fully support Timmermans’ efforts to bring Poland back into the fold.
“But let us be clear that this is not about the retirement age of judges but about an authoritarian regime and the rights of Polish people who deserve better than this.”
She said there were also other issues of concern in the country, including the freedom of the media and the rights of women.