BRUSSELS -- The European Union stepped up its rule-of-law fight with member state Poland on Monday when the bloc's highest court confirmed that Warsaw had refused to comply with EU rules on judicial independence for which it has already lost more than 500 million euros ($535 million) in fines.
The Court of Justice of the EU ruled that Poland's 2019 justice reform infringed EU law after the European Commission, the bloc's executive branch, said that the Polish Supreme Court lacked the necessary independence and impartiality.
“By today's judgment, the Court upholds the Commission's action,” a court statement said.
It was the latest in a streak of setbacks for the nationalist conservative ruling party in Poland, with many Poles furious at what they consider a dramatic erosion of democracy in the country. That sentiment boiled over into a massive anti-government protest in Warsaw on Sunday, probably the largest demonstration in Poland's post-communist era, with an election coming up in the autumn.
Opposition leader Donald Tusk, who had called for the march, estimated that 500,000 Poles turned out.
“Bad news for the government,” declared the conservative Do Rzeczy news portal about the EU court ruling. The state broadcaster, TVP, which acts as a propaganda arm of the ruling party, said that the EU court had overstepped its powers and “attack Poland again. The court exceeds its powers.”
The court decision was, however, welcomed by lawyers and other legal experts who hope it might restore independence to the judiciary.
The EU court argued that “the value of the rule of law is an integral part of the very identity of the European Union as a common legal order and is given concrete expression in principles containing legally binding obligations for the Member States.” It said Poland didn't meet these obligations.
Amid a plethora of condemnation and criticism, the court said that “the measures thus adopted by the Polish legislature are incompatible with the guarantees of access to an independent and impartial tribunal.”
Poland's minister for the European Union, Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk, said that some parts of the ruling were no longer valid or had been abolished.
The court said that Polish law requires judges to divulge membership in an association or party and allows that information to be made public. The court ruling said that the provisions were “liable to expose judges to risks of undue stigmatization.”
The disagreement over the functioning of the Supreme Court is only one of several disputes that the conservative government in Warsaw has with the EU institutions. It claims the bloc is undermining Poland’s inalienable rights to make independent decisions.
The EU institutions have insisted that Poland, under the populist Law and Justice party, has been on a slippery slope away from the EU’s rule of law principles.
The dispute centers on the independence of Polish Supreme Court judges when they review EU law.
Only last week, the United States and the EU’s top justice official criticized Polish plans for another law that could keep political opponents from holding public office without full legal recourse. The EU threatened to take measures if it became fully clear such a law would undermine democratic standards.
In the standoff centering on Monday's ruling by the Luxembourg court, Polish authorities already have had to pay about 550 million euros ($588 million) in fines since October 2021, when the system of 1 million euros in daily fines started. The daily fines were halved in April.
In the legal standoff between Brussels and Warsaw, EU authorities are also withholding the release of around 35 billion euros ($37 billion) in pandemic recovery funds.
After the collapse of the Soviet empire, Poland joined the EU along with other Central and Eastern European nations. Since they emerged from autocracy, they were long models for other emerging democracies. Critics now say that Poland and Hungary are slipping again toward one-party authoritarian rule.
Vanessa Gera contributed to this report from Warsaw, Poland.