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Polish president backs down on judicial reform

Polish president backs down on judicial reform

BRUSSELS: Poland’s president on Monday scrapped his bid to give himself more power over the judiciary, as the EU warned that Warsaw still risked unprecedented sanctions over what it calls a threat to the rule of law.

Andrzej Duda made a sudden U-turn just hours after proposing to change the Polish constitution, when lawmakers told him he would not have parliamentary backing for the move.

Duda had on Monday morning presented his own version of laws in place of government reform proposals he vetoed in July, to the surprise and dismay of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. “There’s no chance for this amendment to pass,” Duda said in a televised statement.

Proposals to overhaul Poland’s judicial system have led to mass street protests and prompted Polish freedom icon Lech Walesa to express concern about his country’s fate in Europe.

The EU says all the Polish reforms pose a “systemic threat” to the rule of law, with Brussels having warned it could go for a so-called nuclear option of freezing Poland’s voting rights within the bloc.

After a meeting with European affairs ministers from the 28-nation bloc to discuss the problem, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said they were united in their concern.

“We will study very carefully the amended proposals announced by President Duda this morning, we will make our comments on that once we have analysed it,” Timmermans said. “But apart from those two drafts there are other worries we have... there’s still a lot we need to do before we can say that the problem has been solved,” he said.

Timmermans, the right-hand man to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, has been leading efforts for months to get Poland to comply with EU democracy standards. If Warsaw fails to halt the measures, the commission — the EU’s powerful executive arm — has also warned it could trigger Article Seven of the EU’s treaties, which could eventually suspend Poland’s right to vote in the bloc.

Poland’s Duda surprised many in July when he vetoed a bill that would have reinforced political control over the Supreme Court, and another that allowed parliament to choose members of a body designed to protect the independence of the courts.

In his own version unveiled on Monday, Duda had proposed that a minimum of 60 per cent of lawmakers would be required to choose members of the court watchdog so that no single party — effectively the PiS — could dominate. The president would then get power to choose the council members if parliament could not agree within two months.

Duda also presented his own version of the Supreme Court bill, which would also increase his powers by letting him decide which judges can remain on the bench past the retirement age of 65.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2017

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