By Alicja Ptak
WARSAW (Reuters) – Europe’s top judge issued a veiled warning to Poland on Thursday over its overhaul of the judiciary, saying there is no place in the European Union for countries that do not have independent courts.
Koen Lenaerts, President of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), made his comments in Warsaw, weeks after Poland’s lower house of parliament approved a draft law that would allow judges who question planned reforms to be disciplined.
The European Commission has said the legislation would imperil the rule of law, deepening a standoff with the governing Law and Justice party in which the EU executive launched legal action in 2019 to try to preserve Polish courts’ independence.
“You can’t be a member of the European Union if you don’t have independent, impartial courts operating in accordance with fair trial rule, upholding union law,” Lenaerts said during a debate at Warsaw University.
“Mutual trust is not blind trust, mutual trust is a trust which must be deserved, which must be earned day after day by all the member states, also by Belgium, by the Netherlands, by Luxemburg, by Portugal, but also by Poland, Hungary, the Balkan states and so on.”
The ECJ, the EU’s top court, has in recent years brought multiple cases against Poland over its overhaul of the judiciary, and on other issues such as environmental protection. Brussels has said it could cut funds for a member state that undermines the rule of law.
The nationalist PiS says the reforms are necessary to make the judiciary more efficient and effective.
LEGAL EXPERTS VISIT
Lenaerts, who was in Poland for a ceremony honoring an ECJ judge who is Polish, arrived on the same day that the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, a body of legal experts, came to Warsaw for consultations on the reforms of the judiciary.
Brussels has asked Poland to hold off adopting the draft law until it consults the Venice Commission, which is due to release an opinion next week.
Poland’s Senate, where the opposition has a majority, could redraft or reject the latest draft legislation when it debates it next week, but the PiS-controlled lower house would still have the power to overturn any changes.
(Additional reporting by Anna Koper; Writing by Marcin Goclowski; Editing by Joanna Plucinska and Timothy Heritage)