EU edges closer to sanctions on Poland over rule of law dispute
The European Union has taken a step closer towards imposing sanctions on Poland after finding its government amiss on the rule of law.
EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans said the EU Commission has adopted an opinion criticising Poland's conservative government for its actions relating to the Constitutional Tribunal which have paralysed the key court.
This means that EU leaders have found months of negotiations with Warsaw unsatisfactory and it brings the stand-off closer to sanctions for Warsaw.
In January, the commission opened a multi-step procedure checking whether Poland respects the rule of law. It could potentially lead to stripping Poland of its EU voting rights.
Any punishment for Warsaw would be the first ever sanctions for any EU member under the new "rule of law" procedure.
Speaking in Brussels, Mr Timmermans said: "We've not been able to find a solution to the issues at stake.
"We hope (the opinion) will help focus our dialogue with the government of Poland on issues that we believe need to be solved to get out of the conflict surrounding the Constitutional Tribunal."
Mr Timmermans said he is still in talks with Poland's government and does not believe any further censuring steps will be needed. But he stressed that the European Commission is obliged to make sure that all member states follow the EU rules.
Poland has two weeks to respond to the opinion, which has not been published. The government said it wants to work with the 28-nation bloc to resolve the issues.
Polish deputy foreign minister Konrad Szymanski said: "The government and the (European) Commission want to mend the situation surrounding the Constitutional Tribunal.
"But we want to solve this crisis out of responsibility for the state not because of recommendations coming from international institutions. That's why, regardless of the Commission's opinion we will present our own solutions to the individual problems."
The EU has had similar issues with Hungary regarding some legislation seen as symptomatic of backsliding on democratic values.
But after prolonged legal wrangling and some amendments made by Hungary, the issue subsided with no sanctions on Budapest.
The EU is concerned about Polish government's refusal to accept the appointment of some new judges to the tribunal, over new rules governing those appointments and over the government's refusal to publish and implement some of the tribunal's rulings.
Actions by Poland's right-wing Law and Justice government, which took office in November and says it is protecting Poland's sovereignty within the EU, have led to massive street marches by some Poles in defense of democracy.
Government spokesman Rafal Bochenek expressed hope that a continuing dialogue with the 28-nation bloc and opposition politicians at home will help "cut short this dispute very soon". But the opposition said there are no such talks.
The government voices doubt as to the "rule of law" procedure, saying it is not included in EU founding treaties.
A European body of legal experts, called the Venice Commission, has also urged Polish ministers to find a lasting solution to the court dispute.