September 19, 2018
In Poland, demonstrators are dressing famous statues in a white T-shirt with a single word emblazoned on them: “Constitution.”
It’s a protest that goes to the heart of a deepening constitutional conflict in Poland, where the ruling nationalist right-wing party is accused of tightening an authoritarian grip on the country’s judicial system while also stifling dissenting voices and fomenting far-right nationalism.
The battle over the direction of Poland and its legal system is now at the center of European Union politics too.
“I think this is a fight about the heart and soul of Europe,” said Frans Timmermans, a top EU commissioner, late Tuesday at a news conference in Brussels.
“The fundamental question is [whether] the rule of law [is] a fundamental principle of how this union is organized – yes or no?” he told reporters.
This fight has been in the making since 2015 when the Law and Justice party won Polish elections, and became the first government with a clear parliamentary majority in post-communist Poland.
Since its victory, the party has passed a series of laws and measures that critics say undermine the rule of law and target opposition voices. The government’s supporters say it was necessary to overhaul a flawed justice system ruled by a caste of corrupt judges.
Last December, the European Commission took the unprecedented step to trigger sanctions proceedings against Poland because of these moves. Poland became an EU member in 2004.
After the November 2015 election, the Polish government annulled the appointment of five judges to the constitutional tribunal nominated by the previous legislature. Replacements were then appointed by the new government.
After that, the Polish parliament approved other changes that the EU and the judicial establishment say undermined the independence of the Polish justice system.
The changes have given the government more control of common courts, the constitutional court, the supreme court and the final appeals court for civil and criminal cases.
The most controversial change lowered the retirement age for supreme court judges from 70 to 65. This has had the effect of forcing about 27 the court’s 73 judges into retirement.