EU €70m fine to Poland

The European Commission has sent Poland notice to pay some 70 million euros in fines for failing to reverse an illegal disciplinary regime for judges, a spokesman said, an escalation in a row between Warsaw and the European Union.

The case is one of many disputes between the EU and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came to power in 2015 and has since faced accusations of eroding democratic freedoms.

Last October the top EU court fined Warsaw for failing to immediately halt the work of the Polish Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber pending a final verdict on the scheme.

The European Union is set to demand that Poland pay around €70 million of fines in the coming weeks for failing to scrap a contentious system for disciplining judges according to Brussels think-tank experts.

The dispute is one of many battles pitting Poland against the EU, which accuses the nationalist government in Warsaw of backsliding on democratic standards, including the independence of the judiciary. Warsaw denies the charge.

“I regret that the situation of the rule of law in Poland shows no signs of improvement and judges continue to be under pressure. We will continue to do our duty to defend the rule of law and judicial independence,” said Věra Jourová, EU Commissioner for Values and Transparency.

Separately, a spokesman for the Commission told reporters that the Brussels-based executive had received Poland’s latest explanation in the dispute, adding: “The EU has ways to ensure payment of fines due from Poland.”

January 11 was the deadline for Warsaw to tell the Commission when and how it would dismantle the Disciplinary Chamber of Poland’s Supreme Court, which the EU’s top EU court had ordered suspended, or pay fines worth €1 million a day.

Should Poland’s response fail to satisfy the Commission, which enforces European law, a source in the EU executive said it would send an invoice to Warsaw, with a 45-day deadline to pay.

By then, the fine would amount to some €70 million, said a second Commission source, adding that the call for payment would be sent to Warsaw “very soon”.

Asked about the case, a deputy Polish justice minister last week accused the EU of making “illegal demands” and said Warsaw would not give in to “blackmail”.

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party introduced the new policing system for judges in 2017 amid a sweeping overhaul of the judiciary widely denounced as undermining the independence of courts and judges.

The Polish judges’ association Iustitia, which accuses PiS of degrading the courts, said the Disciplinary Chamber had suspended six judges so far for challenging government policies, and that two more were awaiting a decision.

Of the six, two have been suspended for more than one year, their cases reassigned to other judges or started from scratch, including one for the murder of a child, Iustitia said.

Iustitia said more than 1,000 judges have been nominated since PiS party changed the law to allow judges to be appointed by government officials instead by other judges to staff judicial panels.

In case Poland continues to refuse to pay for failing to obey the order of the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) – the decisions of which are binding for all member states – the Commission would eventually deduct the total due from EU funds earmarked for Warsaw.

However, the timetable is unclear while the other EU countries have so far either implemented measures prescribed by the European Court of Justice or paid promptly on their own for failing to do so.

A lack of precedent or detailed EU rules allows procedural delays and political disputes over the issue, which has already harmed Poland’s reputation with the EU.

“I regret that the situation of the rule of law in Poland shows no signs of improvement and judges continue to be under pressure. We will continue to do our duty to defend the rule of law and judicial independence,” said Věra Jourová, EU Commissioner for Values and Transparency.

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