The European Court of Justice on Friday ordered the Polish government to suspend a controversial overhaul of the country’s supreme court in a move that puts further pressure on the already strained ties between Brussels and Warsaw.
The court demanded that Poland reinstates its judges that were removed by a law introducing compulsory retirement for those aged 65 or over. The law was seen as an attack on the independence of the judicial system, with new judges being appointed by government.
A failure to comply with the EU’s demands could result in fines being levied against Poland. Friday’s decision, which is only an interim measure pending a formal ruling, is likely to worsen a long-running feud between the EU and Poland over judicial reform, which triggered widespread protests in Warsaw.
Last year the EU initiated, for the first time in its history, Article 7 proceedings against Poland over concerns about the state of the rule of law, which could result in the country losing its voting rights.
Reacting to the European court’s move, Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister said: “We will see what EU institutions propose, and then we’ll take them into consideration and analyse our options.”
In the past members of the government have indicated that Warsaw will abide by the decisions of the Luxemburg-based institution but the shakeup of the supreme court is a flagship project of Law and Justice. The government has pushed ahead with it despite severe internal and external criticism so may well baulk at the prospect of reversing its policies, if even only for a short while.
Law and Justice has argued that the overhaul is necessary to weed out judges with links to the country’s communist past, and to improve the efficiency of the court. But critics have accused the government of threatening the rule of law in Poland by purging the court of judges it considers opponents and replacing them with its own people.
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Malgorzata Gersdorf, the head of the supreme court and one of the judges in line for retirement, welcomed the decision by the European court.
“Personally I’m pleased that someone has taken our case into account,” she said. “I am only disappointed that the government of my country—my homeland—did not do this earlier and that we had to go to the European Court.”