The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, on Wednesday said it was opening an infringement procedure against Poland over disputed new rules to discipline judges.
The move marked the latest step in a long-standing feud between Warsaw and Brussels over alleged rule-of-law breaches.
Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro told a news conference on Thursday that the EU executive’s decision to “launch the rule-of-law procedure was completely unfounded.”
He added that the European Commission “has no power to interfere in the internal affairs of individual member states in terms of how they shape their own judicial systems.”
'Primacy over EU law'
Ziobro also told reporters that “the Polish constitution has always had, and always will have, primacy over the laws of the European Union.”
"We will never agree for European treaties to stand above the Polish constitution," he stressed.
He argued that the EU’s infringement procedure was “unlawful” and reflected “the incompetence and political agenda” of the European Commission.
“Our task is to defend and guard Poland’s legal order and sovereignty,” Ziobro, who also serves as the country's prosecutor-general, told the news conference. "We will not allow anyone to exceed their powers at the expense of Poland, at the expense of the interests of Polish citizens and in violation of our constitution.”
Poland’s parliament in January voted through new rules to discipline judges, dismissing claims by critics that the legislation could undermine judicial independence.
The European Commission on Wednesday said it was starting a formal infringement procedure and giving Poland two months to address its concerns about the new disciplinary regime, which it said could be used to punish judges critical of government changes to the judiciary.
“There are clear risks that the provisions regarding the disciplinary regime against judges can be used for political control of the content of judicial decisions,” said Věra Jourová, the deputy head of the European Commission in charge of upholding the EU’s democratic values.
A Polish government spokesman in December criticised an “off the mark” appeal by the European Commission for politicians in Warsaw to hold off from adopting the controversial law.
Two US Congressmen in January urged the Polish president to uphold his country’s "commitment to democratic values" and reject “dangerous judicial reforms.”
At the end of last year protests were held in dozens of cities across Poland by demonstrators critical of the planned legal changes, which critics say could enable politicians to remove dissenting judges.
Under the law, put forward by deputies from the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), judges could face penalties for challenging the appointment of those of their peers who took up their posts after the conservatives came to power.
Some of the proposals were later modified during parliamentary work.
In late January, senior Polish officials slammed a Supreme Court ruling that judges recently appointed by the country’s governing conservatives were illegitimate and should not be allowed to hear cases.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned that if judges were allowed to question the appointment or verdicts of other judges, the Polish justice system could be engulfed by chaos.
A judicial system 'deeply flawed': PM
Poland's governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came to power in late 2015 and won a second term in power in October last year, has argued that broad changes are needed to reform an inefficient and sometimes corrupt judicial system marred by communist holdovers.
The changes have triggered a series of clashes between Warsaw and Brussels.
The EU’s top court this month ordered Poland to immediately suspend a disciplinary chamber within its Supreme Court that critics have said could punish judges for their decisions.
The Polish prime minister said last year that some of the legal changes made by his conservative government have met with criticism abroad because they are not understood in Western Europe.
Morawiecki said in 2017 that his country’s judicial system was “deeply flawed” and that his ruling conservatives were elected with a mandate to overhaul it.
‘Dysfunction' and ‘pathological’ behaviour
Poland’s Ziobro told reporters last spring that a range of new measures to discipline judges were designed to fight “dysfunction” and "pathological" behaviour in the Polish judiciary and that they were less political than those in neighbouring Germany.
Ziobro also said at the time that a new disciplinary chamber within Poland’s Supreme Court was designed to deal with lapses among judges, including cases of theft.
He added that previous procedures were inadequate to discipline such judges.