EU imposes record fine on Poland ‘to avoid serious and irreparable harm' as rule-of-law row escalates

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The European Union’s top court yesterday imposed a record daily fine of €1m (£845,000) on Poland for failing to scrap a disciplinary system for judges, in a ruling that rapidly escalates the bloc’s ongoing row with Warsaw.

The Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ) said Poland had ignored a court order from two years ago to dismantle the so-called disciplinary chamber of its Supreme Court, which the ECJ described as “neither an independent nor an impartial tribunal”. 

The ECJ said the fine was needed “to avoid serious and irreparable harm to the legal order of the European Union and to the values on which that Union is founded, in particular, that of the rule of law”. 

Poland’s Supreme Court disciplinary chamber was set up in 2018 with the power to dismiss judges and prosecutors, but EU officials say it is stacked with loyalists from the country’s ruling party and risks being abused to inflict punishment on anyone who does not follow the line of the government. 

EU imposes record fine on Poland ‘to avoid serious and irreparable harm’ as rule-of-law row escalates
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Poland’s deputy justice minister Sebastian Kaleta said the ECJ was “acting beyond its competences,” describing the ruling as “usurpation and blackmail.”

The Polish zloty dropped to an almost three-week low against the euro after the decision. 

The ruling follows a separate EU court decision last month to fine Poland €500,000 (about £422,240) for each day it continues to extract lignite at the Turów mine, amid a legal challenge over the mine’s effect on groundwater across the border in the Czech Republic.

Last week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the disciplinary chamber would be abolished, but gave no timeline for when thjis would happen, and no draft law has been introduced.

Mr Morawiecki also said the European Commission was threatening “World War III” for insisting that Poland should ensure the full independence of its courts.

Earlier this month, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled tht Polish law supersedes EU law when there is a conflict between the two. However, like the supreme court disciplinary chamber, the Constitutional Tribunal has been lambasted across the EU as an instrument of Poland’s ruling ultra-conservative Law and Justice party. 

Last week, the European Parliament demanded a freeze on all funding for Poland for “flagrantly, purposefully and systematically” undermining EU values, with the parliament’s vice-president Katarina Barley describing the Constitutional Tribunal as “a marionette court”. On Wednesday, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo warned Poland not to treat the EU like “a cash machine” while ignoring its basic democratic principles. “You cannot pocket all the money but refuse the values,” he said. 

While this week’s combined fines are a hefty €1.5m a day, the biggest costs to Warsaw could be yet to come: the European Commission has still to approve Poland’s €36bn in post-pandemic recovery funds, a decision that also depends on whether the government is ready to accept the primacy of EU law, including a fully independent judiciary. 

While some see the Polish government’s rows with the EU as manoeuvring to leave the bloc, following Brexit, that is viewed as unlikely: opinion surveys say almost nine in 10 voters want to stay in the EU. However, there are fears that if the disputes fester, Warsaw could block key actions within the EU, paralysing decision-making.

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