Poland offers compromise in rule of law dispute with EU

Poland’s ruling party has proposed a bill to change a contested disciplinary chamber for judges, in an attempt to defuse a long-running feud with Brussels over the rule of law.

The chamber has been ruled illegal by the EU’s top court, and has become a flashpoint in a dispute that has led to Brussels withholding billions of euros in funding to Warsaw.

However, amid mounting tension in neighbouring Ukraine, there have been hints that Poland is looking for ways to ease its stand-off with Brussels. Last week, president Andrzej Duda put forward his own plan to amend the disciplinary system for judges, warning that Poland did “not need this fight” in light of the “shocks on the international scene”.

Under the proposal put forward by MPs from the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) on Friday, the disciplinary chamber would continue to exist, but would no longer handle cases involving judges, and instead deal only with those affecting other legal professionals.

Disciplinary cases involving judges would be dealt with by three or seven-judge panels selected by lot from members of the Supreme Court.

The law would prevent judges from being disciplined for the content of their rulings and provide for those already suspended for this reason to be reinstated, except in cases where rulings were the result of “serious and totally inexcusable forms of conduct on the part of the judge”.

The stand-off between Brussels and Warsaw over the rule of law has led to an impasse over Poland’s bid for a €36bn slice of the EU’s NextGenerationEU recovery package. European officials have said Poland should scrap the disciplinary chamber, change its rules and reinstate dismissed judges as conditions for approving Warsaw’s request for pandemic recovery funding.

The recent overture from Duda was welcomed in Brussels as step forward, following the breakdown of efforts to address EU complaints about judicial independence in Poland, but it was not seen as enough to unlock the frozen funding.

Officials are likely to take a similar view of the latest offer, which could lay the ground for more intensive dialogue over the Polish recovery plan even if it is not enough to fulfil the conditions set out by the commission.

Daniel Freund, a Green MEP from Germany, said the latest offer was “a step in the right direction,” but he warned there remained a long way to go.

He said: “The conditions are clear. The independence of the judiciary needs to be re-established, unduly dismissed judges to be reinstated and the ECJ rulings fully implemented. Only then can the RRF funds be released.”

Jakub Jaraczewski, a legal expert at Democracy Reporting International, said that while the proposal addressed European concerns “narrowly” related to the disciplinary chamber, it did not address wider criticisms of Poland’s judicial changes.

“It does nothing about the National Council of the Judiciary, it does nothing about the other problematic chamber of the Supreme Court . . . and it does nothing about the issue with all the new judges who have been appointed with a motion from the NCJ . . . and whose status is being increasingly challenged before the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights,” he said.

To become law, the bill would need to be approved by Poland’s parliament. However, it is not clear whether it would be supported by PiS’s more hardline junior coalition partner, United Poland, which is led by hawkish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro.

Ziobro has pushed for a more confrontational approach to Brussels, and been working on his own bill amending the disciplinary chamber. Without United Poland’s votes, PiS would need the support of opposition lawmakers to pass the bill.

The commission did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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