Poland and the European Union suffered a setback in their already hampered relationship this week, after a Polish court provided a major challenge to the EU’s legal framework, effectively rejecting the primacy of EU law over Polish national legislation in certain matters.
The controversial ruling was defended by Poland Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who played down its implications and said his country is not an “uninvited guest” in the EU and therefore does not agree to be treated as a second-class country.
Many have described this as a move that could lead towards a “legal Polexit”, as it introduces deep issues in cooperation between the Polish and European courts. The ruling has therefore invited backlash from the bloc, and several other member states, triggered a national outrage in the country which thinks this could jeopardise Poland’s access to EU funds among other things. Several thousand Poles have taken to the streets to reaffirm their demand to stay in the bloc.
Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal on Thursday ruled that some articles of one of the European Union’s primary treaties were not compatible with the Polish Law. Essentially, it declared that EU law should not have primacy over every national legislation in Poland.
This legal challenge to the European bloc was brought by the Poland prime minister himself in March this year. This represents a one of a kind situation, as it is the first time since the formation of the EU that a leader of a member state has questioned its treaties openly in a constitutional court.
The ruling also says that Polish Judges should not use EU law to question their peers.
It all started when some new changes were introduced in the Polish Judiciary, especially since Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party came to power in 2015. The ruling party brought amendments to the legal system that increased more government control over judges, thereby reducing judicial independence in some aspects.
These new changes were condemned by the European Commission as well as other international legal bodies, who accused the government of increasing political interference and control over the judiciary.
Adding to this, Poland introduced a new Supreme Court chamber which had the power to sanction judges for specific rulings. This chamber, according to critics, was also being used to silence and punish those judges who had spoken against the government.
The Commission asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to levy daily fines to Poland for not suspending the activities of this new SC chamber. The ECJ also ruled that the new system of appointing Polish judges infringes EU law. It was after this ruling that prime minister Morawieck brought the legal challenge in March.
In a statement, the EU said the Polish challenge raises serious concerns in relation to the primacy of EU law and the authority of the Court of Justice of the European Union. It reiterated the founding principles of the EU’s legal order that clearly states its primacy over national laws of all its member states.
“We will analyse the ruling of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal in detail and we will decide on the next steps. The Commission will not hesitate to make use of its powers under the Treaties to safeguard the uniform application and integrity of Union law,” it said.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she was deeply concerned by the actions of Poland. “I have instructed the commission’s services to analyse it thoroughly and swiftly. On this basis, we will decide on next steps,” she said in her first public statement on the matter.
Other member states like France and Germany have also reacted to this by reminding Poland of its obligations to the bloc. “Poland has a moral and legal obligation as a member of the European Union to abide by its rules completely and unconditionally,” the foreign ministers of France and Germany said in a joint statement issued on Friday.
After the ruling received widespread backlash, the Prime Minister reiterated the fact that Poland wants to stay in the EU and said the issue has become a bigger deal than it is. Morawiecki and another prominent political leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski have instead blamed the country’s opposition parties for spreading “fake news” regarding the exit to stoke fear in people.
On the possibility of a Polexit, Morawiecki took to Facebook and wrote, “this is a harmful myth, which the opposition uses for its own lack of ideas about Poland’s responsible place in Europe.”
However, others have different ideas of what this could lead to. Donald Tusk, the former European Council president and now the head of Poland’s largest opposition group Civic Coalition, said the country stared at a real possibility of an exit. “We have to save Poland, no one will do it for us,” he wrote on Twitter.
Reacting to the ruling, and reiterating their stance of staying within the EU, over 100,000 Poles took to streets on Sunday. Amid fears that Poland could leave the bloc, rallies were held across the entire country.
Ciąg dalszy nastąpi… pic.twitter.com/ifkq8mznUl
— Donald Tusk (@donaldtusk) October 10, 2021
According to the organisers, protests were held in about hundred cities and towns, with over a hundred thousand turning up in the capital Warsaw alone. People could be seen waving the flags of Poland and the EU and shouting slogans like “We are staying.” Several members of the opposition, political activists and others were a part of these protests.
Even opinion polls have consistently shown a strong backing for EU membership among the voters, according to the BBC.
The ruling has thrown Poland and EU’s relations into a state of crisis. Since the EU provides trade, jobs and other benefits to the country, this tussle could have an impact on that. EU officials were also expected to approve funds to Poland this month. However the last ruling complicates this, as some officials have called to freeze all kinds of financial flows to the country.
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox