The European Commission has begun legal action against Poland over rulings by the country’s constitutional court that challenged the supremacy of EU law, in an escalation of the long-running battle between Brussels and Warsaw.
The EU executive said it had “serious concerns” about the Polish constitutional tribunal and its recent case law, citing rulings where the court had challenged the primacy of EU law.
Striking at the heart of the EU legal order, Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled in July that measures imposed by the European court of justice were unconstitutional, with warnings of a legal “Polexit”.
Poland agreed on the supremacy of EU law when it became a member of the bloc in 2004, but the rightwing nationalist Law and Justice (Pis) government that came to power in 2015 has sought to challenge that principle, while bringing domestic courts under political control.
The EU’s legal action is in response to the July ruling and a similar one from October. It follows years of legal wrangling over the independence of Polish courts. In a sign that patience is wearing thin in Brussels, the EU commissioner for justice, Didier Reynders, said: “We’ve tried to engage in a dialogue, but the situation is not improving. Fundamentals of the EU legal order, notably the primacy of EU law, must be respected.”
The commission also said it had “serious doubts” about the independence and impartiality of the Polish constitutional tribunal, a body that now includes former PiS MPs on its bench. Retired judges of the tribunal have said the court has “ceased to perform its constitutional tasks and duties” since its membership was overhauled.
Poland’s government claimed the legal action was an attack on its sovereignty. “The EC is initiating proceedings and wants to subordinate the constitutional tribunal in Poland to EU law,” tweeted the deputy justice minister, Sebastian Kaleta. “This is an attack on the Polish constitution and our sovereignty.”
Beata Szydło, who was Poland’s prime minister from 2015 to 2017 and is now an MEP, tweeted: “This is not a legal dispute, but an attack on the Polish constitution [and] the foundations of Polish statehood. The EC aims to deprive Poland of its rights as a sovereign state.”
Legal scholars said the action was important but overdue. “It’s great that this is happening and there’s no way the commission could retain any credibility in the rule of law field by letting the adventures of [the] Polish constitutional tribunal slide,” wrote Jakub Jaraczewski, a researcher at Democracy Reporting International.
Poland’s government now has two months to respond to the commission’s “letter of formal notice”. The case could go to the European court of justice, leading to daily fines against Warsaw.
It is only the latest in a blizzard of legal cases against Poland launched by the commission, which has also frozen Warsaw’s access to €35.6bn (£30.2bn) in coronavirus recovery funds because of concerns about the absence of independent courts.