The European Commission is fast losing its standoff with Poland over judicial independence.
While a deadline at the end of this month could open the door to sanctions, the Commission has found little enthusiasm in the bloc to punish Warsaw so far and even less unity on how to handle the right-wing government.
“I will repeat: We will not drop this issue — it’s too important,” Frans Timmermans, the Commission vice president in charge of a rule of law probe into Poland, told POLITICO.
Timmermans’ assertions aside, other commissioners and some member countries are wary of alienating Poland at a time when the EU is roiled by an existential crisis.
Should the issue come to a vote, the Commission is unlikely to be able to secure unanimity in the Council, which is required in order to send a warning to Poland for “serious and persistent breach” of the rule of law. The Council needs to issue two formal warnings before it can trigger sanctions and will need a qualified majority to do so.
“The Commission has handled the case very badly,” said a high-ranking official from a Central European country. “What’s the endgame? The Commission has no idea how to finalize this. They have no idea how to push it.”
Calls for action but no appetite
Relations between Poland and the EU turned sour after the Law and Justice (PiS) party of Jarosław Kaczyński won power in 2015 and then refused to accept five judges chosen to the country’s top constitutional court by the previous government.
The move was widely seen as an attack on an independent judiciary and swiftly earned a rebuke from the Commission, which launched a probe looking into “systemic threats” to the rule of law in Poland.
In December, Brussels gave Warsaw a two-month deadline to respond to a series of recommendations. If there is no “satisfactory follow-up” by the end of February, the Commission could try to trigger Article 7, the so-called “nuclear option” which would result in Poland losing its voting rights in the Council.
In the Parliament, the European People’s Party, the Socialists and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) favor penalizing Poland if the government doesn’t comply with the Commission’s rule of law procedure, and in December Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of ALDE, urged the Commission “to trigger Article 7.”
“The PiS government has deliberately decided to ignore the recommendations of the European Commission, of the Venice Commission and of this Parliament,” he said in a statement. “Dialogue must come to an end now. It is time for action.”