June 1, 2016 / 10:27 AM / a year ago

EU steps up pressure on Poland over curbs on judges

European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans addresses a news conference at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 4, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union put more pressure on Poland’s euroskeptic government on Wednesday to scrap changes to its supreme court, in a test of the EU’s power to impose democratic standards on ex-communist members in the east.

The European Commission’s decision to issue a formal complaint to Warsaw, a step in the EU’s new and untried Rule of Law process, prompted Poland’s justice minister to denounce a “one-sided opinion showing a distorted image”.

The warning was announced by the EU’s main negotiator, Frans Timmermans, the deputy head of the European Commission. It comes after months of fruitless diplomacy since Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party won elections in October and imposed changes on the Constitutional Court and the Polish public broadcaster.

“Despite our best efforts, until now we have not been able yet to find solutions,” Timmermans told reporters.

He stressed dialogue would go on and would not speculate on penalties for Poland. It is by far the biggest of the former Soviet satellites that joined the EU a decade ago and a powerful player in the 28-nation bloc, which is bracing for upheaval if Britain votes to leave in a referendum this month.

Under a procedure adopted two years ago after a frustrating battle between the EU and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Poland has two weeks to respond to the formal “opinion”. If more talks fail, the commission can recommend its own solution and set a deadline to implement it.

Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said Poland was ready for discussion of “anti-crisis scenarios” to ease EU concern that an increase in the number of judges needed for a ruling, a rejection of pending judicial nominees and other government decisions have undermined the court’s independence.

But, Szymanski said, the government would not agree to measures that would disappoint its supporters in parliament: “(They) must be in line with the parliamentary majority’s expectations,” he said. “That is the most important thing.”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters in Brussels: “Democracy is more than a parliamentary majority. It’s also about civil society.”

EU DILEMMAS

More deadlock could trigger the “nuclear option” of fellow EU states launching a suspension procedure. Warsaw could lose its voting rights in the Union and possibly suffer other penalties, such as a loss of grants and subsidies.

However, Orban for one has already said he would veto the unanimity required for that under Article 7 of the EU treaty. And EU leaders are loath to deepen an east-west split created by the refusal of Poland, Hungary and others to take in large numbers of refugees to ease the migration crisis in the bloc.

That may leave the EU again assailed by rights activists, who complain that it has failed to uphold aspects of European democratic values, and at the same criticized by increasingly vocal eurosceptic movements for meddling in national affairs.

Viviane Reding, a former EU justice commissioner who battled with Orban, approved of her successors’ move to enforce the rules. All states had signed treaties whose fundamental values were “indivisible,” she said. “When one member state disrespects them, this concerns us all,” she told Reuters.

EU leaders recognize, however, that the treaties give them few powers over each other unless the decisions are unanimous. As a result, senior officials in Brussels, when pressed on what may happen next in Poland, stress the role of Poles themselves.

“The solution is in their hands,” said Reding, now a member of the European Parliament. “The solution is in Poland.”

Additional reporting by Adrian Krajewski and Wiktor Szary; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Larry King

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