EU triggers proceedings which could lead to sanctions against Poland
The European Union's executive arm has triggered proceedings against Poland over Warsaw's contentious overhaul of its justice system - a move that could lead to unprecedented sanctions.
The European Commission's decision to trigger what is known as Article 7 is in response to several laws enacted by the right-wing Law and Justice party during its two years in power to give it greater control over the justice system.
Two of those laws - one on the Constitutional Tribunal and another giving the justice minister power to name the presidents of all ordinary courts - have already taken effect.
Only the next stage of Article 7 would involve sanctions, including the loss of voting rights in the Council.
This step, however, is considered unlikely to happen because it requires the unanimity of all EU countries, and Hungary's government has vowed to block any such move.
EU Commissioner Franz Timmermans said the move was being carried out "for Poland, for Polish citizens", so they can rely on a fully independent judiciary in their nation - a key underpinning of EU principles.
Poland's government, which has carried on with an overhaul of its court system despite two years of warnings from the EU, took the decision in stride.
Zbigniew Ziobro, who is both justice minister and prosecutor general as part of the legal changes, which have hugely strengthened his powers, said he received the news with "calm" and said Poland's government "must continue the reforms".
He insisted the provisions were drawn from the justice systems of western EU members.
Two additional laws have been passed by parliament and still await the signature of the president.
The Commission must now submit a request to the EU member states to declare "a clear risk of serious breach of the rule of law" in Poland.
That is essentially a warning, or in EU terms, a "preventative" measure, that will require that acceptance of 22 EU countries.
European Council president Donald Tusk said the decision stems from what he says are Polish government policies which place authorities "above the law".
He said the conservative government has "practically liquidated judicial independence in Poland".
For Mr Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, the worst thing for Poland has already taken place.
He said the ruling Law and Justice party's policy had "in a conscious way placed Poland across, and maybe even outside" the EU.
A spokeswoman for Poland's ruling party called the EU's decision "political," and said it has nothing to do with the facts about the steps that Poland is taking.