The European Commission decided Wednesday to launch an unprecedented probe of Poland’s recent clampdown on its Constitutional Tribunal, taking the first step toward possible sanctions of Warsaw for actions that may violate the Union’s democratic principles.
Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s first vice president, told reporters the decision to open a “preliminary assessment” was made in a meeting of all 28 members of the EU executive in order to “clarify the facts in an objective way” and “start a dialogue with Polish authorities without prejudging any next steps.”
“Our aim is to solve these issues,” Timmermans said. “It is to not go into a polemic.”
Timmermans spoke after commissioners met behind closed doors to discuss the recent conservative push in Poland and decide whether to put the country under closer scrutiny for breaching the EU’s democratic norms.
He said the Commission would trigger the first step of the rule of law procedure, which entitles the institution to make a formal assessment of Poland.
It was the first time the Commission had taken such an action, part of a process that was instituted in 2014 to deal with questions about whether countries were upholding the EU’s democratic values. The next steps are a recommendation and a follow-up to the recommendation in case there is a “systemic threat” to the rule of law in an EU country.
Poland’s minister for European affairs, Konrad Szymański, said later Wednesday that the Commission was “risking involvement in the internal political debate” of his country. But Szymański said his country was “pleased” to see that the Commission was interested in a “good dialogue” with Poland.
“We are very willing to provide further explanations and information that may be needed to understand the situation in Poland,” he told reporters after a meeting with members of the European Parliament in Brussels.
The Commission debate took place after several days of political bickering between Brussels and Warsaw over the EU criticism of the Polish government’s actions. Polish authorities responded harshly to two letters from Commission asking Poland to clarify the recent changes to its media laws and Constitutional Tribunal.
In his response to Timmermans on Tuesday, Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro called the Commission’s requests “unjustified accusations” and blamed the dispute on “left-wing” political motivations.
Ziobro warned Brussels “to exercise more restraint in instructing and cautioning the parliament and the government of a sovereign and democratic state in the future, despite ideological differences that may exist between us, with you being of a left-wing persuasion.”
In another letter last week responding to Timmermans’ concerns about the media law, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksander Stępkowski argued that the law didn’t endanger press freedom and warned that if Brussels pushed the issue too far there could be “an undesirable effect.”
Many EU politicians have been critical of Poland’s move. Writing in POLITICO on Wednesday, Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt said that if the current government were to seek EU membership now, “it would fail.”
Verhofstadt had also criticized the EU for adopting a soft treatment of Hungary after the country imposed controversial crackdowns on its justice and media systems in 2013 and 2014, despite calls for EU action.
But Poland, the EU’s sixth-largest economy, is not Hungary. The country has almost four times Hungary’s population and plays a crucial political role in the bloc. It is also a significant partner for the NATO alliance, especially at a time of worries about the threat from Russia.
Daniel Holtgen, the spokesman for the Council of Europe, said Poland had requested the advice of the Venice Commission, a group of experts designated by the Strasbourg-based institution to provide legal assistance and advice to EU countries on European standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Holtgen said the Venice commission had been active in the area of reforms in Ukraine.
Stępkowski is in Brussels today to meet with members of the European Parliament, but some parliament officials said he didn’t discuss his country’s recent developments. The visit of Polish President Andrzej Duda in Brussels next week is also expected to smooth tensions with the EU. Duda will meet EU Council President Donald Tusk and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
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