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EU court rules Polish judicial reform illegal in worsening standoff

The European Union’s top court ruled on Thursday that Poland’s system fordisciplining judges undercuts the bloc’s laws, part of anescalating battle over democratic rules that risks Warsaw losingsome of its key development funding.

Poland’s ruling nationalists set up a disciplinary chamberat the Supreme Court in a sweeping overhaul of the judiciaryalready condemned by the Court of Justice of the EU (ECJ) inLuxembourg and the bloc’s Brussels-based executive, which actsas the guardian of laws across the 27 member states.

Reinforcing that, the ECJ ruled that the chamber "does notprovide all the guarantees of impartiality and independence,and, in particular, is not protected from the direct or indirectinfluence of the Polish legislature and executive".

The ECJ had already told Warsaw to immediately stop allproceedings at the disciplinary chamber but Poland’s top courtsaid on Wednesday the demand ran counter to its constitution andthe country should not comply.

"It is an obvious conclusion for any Polish citizen that theconstitution is the highest legal act," Polish Prime MinisterMateusz Morawiecki told reporters on Thursday. Both he andJustice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said they considered the EUstance to be politically motivated.

The row may lead to the ECJ imposing hefty fines on Warsawor the other EU countries suspending financing. Poland is due toget some 770 billion zlotys ($200 bln) from the bloc by 2028;its nominal GDP was 2.3 trillion zlotys ($595 bln) in 2020.

The Polish ruling challenged the primacy of European lawsover national ones, a key tenet of European integration. Thatdrew warnings that the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party isedging away from the EU, which has driven the ex-communistcountry’s social and economic development.

"It’s not Poland but Kaczynski and his party that areleaving the EU," Donald Tusk – the head of Poland’s mainopposition party, a former chairman of EU leaders and thearch-foe of PiS head Jaroslaw Kaczynski – said.

‘POLEXIT’?

Warsaw’s refusal to comply with the ECJ does not mean itmust now follow in Britain’s footsteps and trigger the formal EUdivorce procedure. But it is undergoing a de-facto "legalPolexit of the judiciary", an EU official said, moving itselffurther away from the bloc.

The European Commission on Thursday declined comment on thespectre of "Polexit". It said it was "deeply concerned" with thePolish Constitutional Tribunal ruling and that Warsaw had to"fully and correctly" implement all ECJ decisions.

Steve Peers, law professor at Britain’s University of Essex,said talk of Poland leaving the EU was an exaggeration, aslegally it could not be thrown out and there was no sign of aPolish government trying to leave.

Warsaw still has time and scope to negotiate as moreprocedural steps would be needed before the ECJ could impose anyfines.

The EU’s new mechanism to protect the rule of law by cuttingfinancing for violators has not yet been tested and is highlypolitically sensitive.

Poland has been a top beneficiary of EU development aidsince first joining in 2004. While not even the euroscepticgovernment may want to risk that, Poland’s rights ombudsman – avocal PiS critic – said no one could be sure where such acrawling "legal Polexit" leads.

Once a posterchild of post-communist transition, Poland hasbecome an enfant terrible of the EU under the PiS, which hasalso clashed with the bloc over independence of media andcurbing the rights of migrants, women and gays.

The Commission began new legal cases on Thursday againstWarsaw and Budapest for violating LGBT rights, taking Poland totask over parts of the country declaring themselves "LGBT-freezones".

Hungary touched a raw nerve in the bloc with a new law thatbans from schools materials deemed as promoting homosexuality.

"Equality and the respect for dignity and human rights arecore values of the EU," the Commission said.

Warsaw and Budapest say they are protecting theirtraditional societies from Western liberalism.

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