BRUSSELS -- The European Union intensified a legal fight with Poland and Hungary on Thursday over respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law, which critics say are increasingly strained in the EU's two leading eastern nations.
The EU's top court, the European Court of Justice, ruled Thursday that Poland’s way of disciplining high judges contravenes EU law and undermines judicial independence, and told the country's right-wing government to change it. The European Commission also started legal action against Poland and Hungary for what the EU's executive arm sees as blatant disrespect for the rights of LGBT people.
The court ruling was the latest development in a six-year dispute stemming from the Polish government asserting more control over the judicial system. The Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice issued it the day after Poland's Constitutional Court ruled that temporary injunctions issued by the EU court regarding the national judiciary were non-binding.
In a statement, however, the Court of Justice said that “the disciplinary regime for judges in Poland is not compatible with EU law,” since it opens up the independent judicial branch to political interference.
The government in Warsaw has increasingly denounced EU actions against its decisions on the judiciary as politically motivated and has pushed for years to shake off the guidance and supervisory role of the EU justice system.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki dismissed Thursday's ruling as a "typical dispute of the doctrine” and insisted that the EU court has no authority on the shaping of the justice systems in individual member nations.
The head of Poland’s parliamentary commission for justice, Marek Ast, agreed, saying that "the organization of the justice system is the sole competence of EU member states. Secondly, the standards that ECJ is drawing from the EU treaties are not in line with Poland’s Constitution.”
It brought into sharp view the dispute over national law versus EU law, and which trumps which.
For the EU Commission there is no doubt: "The EU law has primacy over national law and all decisions by the European Court of Justice, including orders for interim measures, are binding on member states’ authorities and national courts,” chief spokesperson Eric Mamer said.
The EU's belief in its primacy is based on the principle that when countries join the bloc, they take on all of its rules and responsibilities if they also want to reap the rewards. Poland and Hungary both joined in 2004 and drove their economic emergence from communist rule partly on EU subsidies and aid.
Under right-wing, nationalist governments in recent years, the two EU members have increasingly veered away from the Brussels orthodoxy.
And EU headquarters has applied pressure to safeguard the 27-nation bloc's democratic cornerstones. The European Commission said it opened the legal action against Poland because Warsaw had provided insufficient information on regions and cities promoting themselves as “LGBT ideology-free zones.”
The commission launched the action against Hungary over a law that it considers discriminatory against lesbians, gay men, and bisexual and transgender people. The law, which took effect a week ago, outlaws disseminating LGBT-related content in schools or promoting it to children.
New budget rules allow the EU to stem the flow of subsidies to member states that do not respect the bloc's basic rule of law principles. Hungary and Poland could become the first test cases.
The European Court of Justice ruling came after the EU Commission complained to the court that Poland was digressing from rule of law cornerstones underpinning the EU treaty. In the case concerned, the commission believes that the independence and impartiality of a court chamber the government established to discipline judges and prosecutors cannot be guaranteed, and that the chamber's actions could potentially affect the application of justice.
Poland's ruling Law and Justice party claims the 2017 establishment of the Disciplinary Chamber was part of its efforts to reform an inefficient judicial system riven with corruption. Critics see that as a pretext for seizing control of the country's courts.
Many judges and lawyers allege the chamber is being used to pressure judges to issue rulings that favor the ruling authorities. To date, while the ruling party has sought to exert control over the high courts and key judicial bodies, many lower court judges continue to assert their independence. Some have issued rulings against government officials or interests.
The chamber is composed of judges selected by the National Council of the Judiciary, a body whose own members are chosen by parliament, where Law and Justice holds a majority.
In upholding all the complaints made by the commission, the EU court issued a litany of perceived flaws in the Polish system, including that it leaves judges vulnerable to political control and pressure that influences decisions.
It said the Disciplinary Chamber “does not provide all the guarantees of impartiality and independence and, in particular, is not protected from the direct or indirect influence of the Polish legislature and executive.”
The court called on the Polish authorities to “take the measures necessary to rectify the situation.”
Monika Scislowska contributed from Warsaw