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EU-Poland dispute escalates as EU takes unprecedented action
Last Updated: 2017-12-21 06:59 | Xinhua
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The European Commission on Wednesday took an unprecedented step by triggering Article 7, the first time in its history, and launched an unprecedented censure against Poland over a judicial reform dispute.

"The Commission has today concluded that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland," the Commission said in a statement.

Dubbed so-called "nuclear option", Article 7 has never been triggered against any EU member state before. The procedure could eventually lead to Poland losing its voting rights in the 28-member bloc.

In response, Poland regretted the decision to launch Article 7, saying the Commission's decision is "essentially political, not legal in its nature", Poland's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

To make the situation more complicated, Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen said his country will veto any EU's sanction decision on Poland in the future.

ARTICLE 7

At issue in Poland is what critics describe as two years of legislation which put the judiciary under the control of the ruling Law and Justice party, compromising independent courts and the rule of law.

"Within a period of two years, a significant number of laws have been adopted -- 13 in total -- which put in serious risk the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers," Commission vice president Frans Timmermans told reporters in Brussels.

"Judicial reforms in Poland means that the country's judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority. In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law," Timmermans said.

Under Article 7, the European Council, or heads of national governments, may declare that there is a risk of a serious breach of European values by a member state.

Such a declaration requires a four-fifths majority and may subsequently involve sanctions against the member state in question. Among other consequences, the country could be stripped of its vote in the European Council.

Many commentators, however, see even the evocation of the measures as a sign that Brussels is taking the issue in Poland very seriously.

According to Wednesday's statement from the European Commission, the EU institution opened a dialogue with Polish authorities in January 2016 under the Rule of Law Framework, going through a three-phase process to resolve potential conflicts between national and EU law.

The Commission has given Warsaw three months to introduce its latest rule of law recommendations, the fourth set it has issued with regard to Poland so far.

"ESSENTIALLY POLITICAL"

Poland responded angrily, saying the Commission's decision is "essentially political, not legal in its nature", Poland's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"We are always ready for talks. During the last European summit, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki confirmed our will to continue the dialogue at the highest level with the Commission, which was positively welcomed by the other side," it said.

"We hope that soon we will be able to present our position in a direct and open manner," it said.

Morawiecki, who became new prime minister earlier this month, said Poland is attached to the rule of law principle as the EU is, according to Polish Press Agency.

Morawiecki said the judicial reforms were necessary, and suggested that dialogue between Warsaw and the European Commission needed "openness and honesty".

"I believe that Poland's sovereignty and the idea of United Europe can be reconciled," he added.

Poland's judicial reforms have caused many controversies among Polish citizens and among foreign institutions as well. The reforms include changes in the electoral system of the members of National Council of the Judiciary and Supreme Court judges' retirement.

HUNGARY TO VETO ANY SANCTION

Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen termed as unprecedented and incredible the European Commission's decision.

"The decision seriously violates the sovereignty of Poland," Semjen said in an interview with Hungarian news agency MTI.

"It is unacceptable that Brussels put pressure on sovereign states and arbitrarily punish democratically elected governments," he added.

"The Polish-Hungarian friendship and the commitment of the Hungarian government towards the treaties oblige us to oppose the European Commission's decision on all the forums," Semjen stressed.

"The Hungarian government is today and in the future standing by Poland and will continue to protect Poland against an unfair, and conceptual political process," he said.

To MTI's question of whether this could mean that Hungary would veto the decision against Poland, Semjen replied with a firm "yes".

Semjen said that it was unfair that the European Commission did nothing when some European member states failed to comply with European treaties, while it then "politically initiated proceedings against the Polish government".

"This is a typical case of double standards, and what the European Commission is doing now goes against the European values," Semjen underlined.

UK POSITION

Observers will be looking at British Prime Minister Theresa May's planned visit to Warsaw on Thursday, to see whether she will discuss the recommendations from the European Commission, despite Britain's own difficulties with the EU after Brexit.

"We place great importance on the respect for the rule of law and we expect all our partners to abide by international norms and standards," May's spokesman told reporters.

"The prime minister will raise her concerns with the prime minister when they meet tomorrow," said the spokesman.

European commissioners have recommended EU member states issue a formal warning to Poland under the Article 7 procedure, warning Poland's government was putting fundamental democratic values at risk.

Thus far, the UK has remained neutral in the growing rift between Poland's hardline government and the EU, concerned about the optics of Brussels appearing to interfere with a country's domestic affairs.

Having recently reached agreements with Brussels that will allow Brexit negotiations to reach the second phase, however, there is speculation that May might have reason to support the EU position.

"I hope Theresa May will firmly raise this issue in Warsaw," Guy Verhofstadt, European Parliament Brexit negotiator, told British daily newspaper The Telegraph.

"This visit is an important first test of the UK's pledge to defend European liberal democratic values, as we move forward together to build a strong security partnership," he said.

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