Poland has announced that they will dissolve the highly criticized Disciplinary Chamber to end disagreements with the European Union. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), announced “We will dissolve the Disciplinary Chamber as it currently operates and in this way the subject of the dispute will disappear.”
Since 2015 Poland has been reforming its judicial system. Poland introduced a disciplinary system in 2017 and in December of 2019, Poland adopted the so-called “muzzle law.” This led to protests in the larger cities in Poland. The combination of these legislative changes offered political institutions a way to influence the judicial system. Division of power is a cornerstone in most democratic states and is the reason why the disciplinary court in Poland has received criticism. It threatens the division of power by offering the political institutions a way to punish judges that makes rulings that politicians disagree with. This in effect endangers the rule of law in Poland. In an academic article, Katarzyna Gajda-Roszczynialska and Krystian Markiewicz warned that “Institutions and, above all, judges who are safeguarding the rule of law are being destroyed”. Moreover, at the end of last year, 32 NGOs and 22 professors signed an open letter urging the EU “to preserve what is left of the rule of law in Poland while there is still time”.
The EU has been critical of the legal reforms in Poland and in particular the Disciplinary Chamber. The union puts a great deal of emphasis on rule of law. Article II in the treaty of the European Union states that the union is based on rule of law and that this value should be held by member states. The EU’s top court ruled that Poland was breaking EU law with the chamber. Poland was given a deadline of the 16th of August this year. The EU threatened Poland with fines if they did not comply with the court’s ruling by then. This is a problem that the EU is increasingly finding itself in when it comes to legislation in the eastern states. Hungary is in a similar conflict with the EU over the rule of law and anti-LGBTQ legislation that violated human rights and EU law. The fact that the EU is increasingly having to use forceful mechanisms to try to get members to adhere to European law is a worrying sign.
The Europe Editor of the Financial Times, Tony Barber, points out that the EU has a double standard. Western states tend to get off easier when they are not in line with EU legislation than eastern states do. In an interview earlier this month Polish Justice Minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, accused the EU of blackmailing and hinted at Poland exiting the EU. This rhetoric is becoming increasingly common in Europe, even though rule of law is a founding principle of the EU as was well known when Poland entered the union in 2003. Poland’s announcement that they will comply with the EU court’s ruling and dissolve the chamber is welcome by many. However, some are suggesting that simply dissolving the chamber is not enough to be in line with EU law. Laurent Pech, a professor of European law, told Reuters “They have to undo everything they have done for the past five years, there is no other way.”
While Poland’s decision on the disciplinary chamber is a step in the right direction, the EU and Poland still conflict over other legislation. This highlights an ongoing trend of members, in particular eastern states, moving away from the EU. This is especially noticeable when it comes to the rule of law, freedom of speech and LGBTQ rights. Moreover, the EU’s apparent double standard is also part of the issue, especially when proclaiming to be a union based on rule of law.
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