Warsaw (Poland), October 20: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has defended his government's position in a conflict with the European Union (EU) over the sovereignty of EU over national law.
Morawiecki addressed the European Parliament (EP) Tuesday regarding a controversial verdict by his country's Constitutional Tribunal (CT), which placed the authority of the Polish constitution above EU law.
Faced with the threat of penalties from the European Commission for not implementing rulings by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), Morawiecki chose a confrontational approach, labeling potential withholding of EU funds as punishment as financial blackmail.
However, he added that Poland remains committed to following EU laws and principles.
"Union law precedes national law to the level of the statutes and in the areas of competence granted to the Union," Morawiecki said. "This principle applies in all EU countries. But the Constitution remains the supreme law."
The CJEU ruled in July that a disciplinary chamber established by the Polish government goes against the principle of the rule of law as enshrined in the European treaties.
The body had also ruled on various individual cases on the demotion, transfer and penalizing of judges, which critics see as ways of punishing judges who do not rule in line with the wishes of the Law and Justice (PiS) party currently in power.
However, on Oct. 7 the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the Polish constitution was superior to EU law, despite the primacy of EU law being a central tenet of membership of the bloc. The CT verdict formalized an argument used by Poland's government for ignoring rulings against the country's judicial reforms.
The Polish government argues that such reforms are necessary to purge the influence of special interests. However, critics see the reforms as an ongoing campaign to take political control of the courts by installing party loyalists as key judges.
The CT itself is subject to controversy, with most judge positions filled by people broadly seen as party activists. At least one of those positions was filled illegally, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in May.
By not respecting the rulings, Poland risks severe fines that would be withheld from EU benefits, to the tune of 24 billion euros (27.8 billion U.S. dollars) in subsidies and 12 billion euros in low-interest loans.
Further penalties could include invoking Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which suspends certain rights for a member state.
The European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen said during the debate that the Polish ruling is "a direct challenge to the unity of the EU," and undermines the protection of judicial independence. It is the first time an EU member state has questioned the conformity of the EU Treaties with its own constitution, she added.
"The rule of law is the glue that binds our union together," she was quoted by the Polish Press Agency as saying. She said that the ruling could have "serious consequences" for Polish citizens, who may find their rights threatened without independent courts.
Von der Leyen stressed that the ruling undermined the EU's legal order, and that only a unified legal system guaranteed equal rights, legal safety and trust among the EU members. The EU does not recognize the Polish CT as an independent court, she emphasized.
PiS supporters applauded Morawiecki's speech to the EP. "Morawiecki clearly and precisely explained where the boundaries in competence are for European Union," said Izabela Kloc, an MEP for PiS. "His speech was natural, smart and above all different from the ideological and infantile comments that we are used to coming from EU celebrities."
The opposition, however, viewed Strasbourg as a defeat for Morawiecki.
"We were witness to the PiS government hitting a wall," commented Donald Tusk, former Polish prime minister and leader of the Civic Platform, the largest opposition party in the Polish parliament.
"None of the arguments presented by the representatives from the PiS government seem to have convinced either the political parties, nor the member states of the EU," he said. (1 euro = 1.16 U.S. dollars)