On October 8th, Poland’s constitutional court held that certain sections of European Union treaties are incompatible with the Polish constitution, escalating ongoing tension with the bloc. According to the BBC, the European Commission maintained that the judgment raises serious concerns about the primacy of EU law, and challenges the foundations of European integration. This tension between the EU and Poland follows difficult controversies concerning media freedoms, LGBTQ+ rights, and immigration. According to The Economist, critics of Poland’s recent actions say that the judgement not only challenges the supremacy of EU law, but also jeopardizes Poland’s long-term future within the Union and its stability.
Reuters reported that Poland’s constitutional court reviewed the case after Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki questioned whether EU institutions could stop Poland from reorganizing its judiciary. The governing party, PiS, a rightwing populist party, has spent four years trying to take control of the country’s judiciary system, “eroding the independence of most branches of the judicial system.” Marcin Matczak, a law professor at the University of Warsaw, explained that “this is an extreme escalation by the Polish government.” Since 2015, the PiS has held direct control of the National Council of the Judiciary, which was previously an independent body that oversees the appointment and promotion of Polish judges.
Human Rights Watch warned that this paves the way for Poland’s courts to ignore rulings by the The European Court of Justice (ECJ) addressing the Polish government’s interference with judicial independence. The organization maintains that “if left unchecked, it creates a precedent that wrongfully suggests EU states can pick and choose what binding EU law they apply.” As a result, the EU has condemned Poland for failing to uphold the rule of law and the independence of its judiciary.
In 2021, the ECJ found that the National Council of the Judiciary acted undemocratically by “appointing judges to the Supreme Court who are not sufficiently neutral,” invalidating a Polish court decision. German Green MEP Terry Reintke said “this is more than bad news for democracy and freedom in Europe.” Reintke also called for “full solidarity with all Polish citizens who stand up for the rule of law… Polish judges are European judges. The independence of the judiciary cannot be negotiable.”
Still, on October 8th, Judge Bartlomiej Sochanski commented that “the EU Treaty is subordinate to the constitution in the Polish legal system… like any part of the Polish legal system, it must comply with the constitution.” According to some MEPs, puts the EU’s foundation at risk. Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister, Jean Asselborn, said the clash threatened its existence, while Germany’s Minister for European affairs, Michael Roth, said the Union must not compromise on its founding values.
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen insisted that the situation had to be resolved, and that “[I]t is a direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order.” The options she is considering are legally challenging the court ruling, withholding EU funds, and suspending some of Poland’s rights as a member state. For example, the European Commission is yet to approve €57bn of COVID-19 recovery funds envisioned for Poland, and may not do so until the dispute is settled.
Still, Reuters claimed that support for the EU is high amongst Polish citizens. The head of the PiS Jarosław Kaczyński dismissed claims that Poland’s government wanted to leave the EU. Kaccyznski said that “here will be no Polexit. We unequivocally see Poland’s future in the European Union.” It is absolutely vital for the EU that Poland remain a part of them, just as much as it is necessary and desired by the majority of Polish people. In this way, the EU has the tricky task of guiding Poland to recognize that they must adhere to the Union’s fundamental values, which the member states themselves established when signing the treaties.