A controversial bill that would give Poland’s ruling nationalist party extensive control over the country’s court system passed the lower house of Polish parliament on Thursday, stoking fears over threats to the rule of law and democracy in the nation.
The European Union on Wednesday threatened to sanction Poland over the proposed changes to the courts, just days after thousands gathered across the nation to rally against new legislation targeting the judiciary.
The demonstrations drew massive crowds last weekend in the capital of Warsaw and other major cities holding flags and voicing their support for judicial independence.
The rallies, along with the EU warning, are the latest in a series of protests against what critics see as the ruling Law and Justice party’s continued attempts to hollow out many of the country’s democratic institutions since it took power in late 2015.
But although concern has existed over the party’s nationalist and increasingly illiberal policies since taking office, the bill that will now be reviewed by the upper house of parliament would enact some of the party’s most significant changes yet. The judiciary reforms are expansive enough that the EU has issued repeated warnings to Poland and is now threatening legal repercussions.
“They would abolish any remaining judicial independence and put the judiciary under full political control of the government,” the European Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said Wednesday in a Brussels press conference.
The new bill, unveiled last week, would give the party power to rapidly take over the country’s judicial branch of government. If it passes, Law and Justice would be able to dismiss all of Poland’s top judges and appoint new members of the Supreme Court. The move would put the party in effective control of a body that is the final word on all criminal cases in the country, as well as on the legitimacy of elections.
It also comes on the heels of another bill, already passed last Friday, that gives the government increased power to appoint judges.
The moves have prompted EU officials to float the option of triggering never-before used Article 7, which could possibly result in sanctions for Poland under the charge of committing fundamental rights violations.
But the road to any sanctions on Poland would be long and convoluted, and face opposition from similarly illiberal-minded governments such as Hungary.
The judicial reforms are the latest example of how Poland’s government is slipping toward illiberalism and challenging the unity of the European Union.
Despite only possessing a slight majority in Poland’s parliament, the Law and Justice party has successfully pushed through a number of its policies and consolidated its power. In 2016, it passed reforms allowing it to gain control over state media, in a move that spurred public protests and condemnation from EU officials.
Last year, the EU also sent an official warning to Poland over its planned court reforms, and the bloc is also currently taking legal action against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for their refusal to take in refugees as part of the EU resettlement plan.
These longstanding tensions between the EU and Poland have intensified in recent weeks, however, as the fight over judicial reforms ramps up.
As the EU mulls a potential response, meanwhile, the judiciary bill could be passed by the end of the week.
This article has been updated with the news that the lower house of Poland’s parliament has passed the bill.