Poland broke EU law by trying to lower judges' retirement age

Poland says it has amended the reform on judges' retirement age so the European Commission case should have been dropped

An attempt by Poland to change the retirement age of its judges broke EU law, the bloc's top court ruled Tuesday, prompting Brussels to demand Warsaw quickly fix the damage it caused to the ranks of its judiciary.

But Poland argued that, as far it was concerned, the matter was closed, having already abandoned the contentious 2017 decision that judges must step down at 65 for men and 60 for women, from 67 for both previously.

The verdict by the European Court of Justice is a blow to the conservative government in Poland, and a win for the European Commission battling what it sees as illiberal populists springing up in some eastern member states threatening EU standards of democracy.

A Commission spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, told reporters that "the ball is in the camp of the Polish authorities to tell us how they will comply with this judgment."

Brussels was willing to "support" Poland to come up with some sort of redress for the judges dismissed under the measure before it was abandoned, she said, warning that "there are of course further legal measures in case" no redress was made.

- 'An old situation' -

The Commission has left hanging the threat of reduced EU spending for Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic if they do not come into line on EU norms.

But such retribution is currently impossible under the current EU decision-making process, which requires unanimity.

Poland and Hungary, notably, defend changes they have made to laws on their judiciary and media, which the EU views as an attempt at neutering institutions providing democratic checks and balances, as sovereign decisions not subject to Brussels' oversight.

In a tweeted statement, Poland's foreign ministry argued that the retirement-age reform "did not infringe on the judges' independence".

In any case, it said, it "relates to an old situation that does not correspond to current regulations," the retirement-age provision having been amended last year.

"The Commission should have withdrawn its complaint after the amended law came into force," it said.

- Discrimination -

Poland's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), which is often at loggerheads with the EU institutions, insists judicial reforms are needed to tackle corruption and change a judicial system still carrying some communist-era legacies.

Polish judges had resisted what they saw as early retirement orders under the 2017 rule, arguing the government was trying to shift independent magistrates off the bench to replace them with loyalists.

In its finding, the European Court of Justice said the reform was "contrary to EU law" by violating the bloc's texts on non-discrimination between genders when it comes to equal pay and pensions.

The court also ruled that a discretionary power allowing Poland's justice minister to decide whether to keep a judge on past the mandatory retirement age relied on criteria that were "too vague and unverifiable" and it called into question the neutrality of the judges concerned. That rule, too, has been abandoned.

- Vow to 'change Poland' -

Tuesday's ruling does not augur well for Poland in another case the European Commission last month brought against it.

That matter focuses on a new disciplinary regime for Polish judges that allegedly threatens their independence.

Poland's Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro has called the new case -- the third by the Commission against Warsaw -- a "political act" that "could prove counter-productive".

The PiS, which took office in late 2015 and won re-election last month, is fiercely conservative, opposing LGBT rights while boosting welfare spending and wooing rural voters.

Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski -- widely regarded as Poland's ultimate powerbroker -- said in October his party has a mandate "to continue to change Poland".