EU countries to probe Poland over rule of law

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A July 2018 law that lowers the pension age of Polish judges from 70 to 65 affects 27 of the 73 Supreme Court sitting judges

The EU agreed Wednesday to launch hearings later this month into fears Poland is breaching the independence of its courts, officials said, as Warsaw moved closer to possible unprecedented sanctions.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said it had asked the 28 member states to hold a formal hearing after Poland's rightwing government had failed to allay its concerns.

"Most of the member states supported the request by the commission," a spokesperson for Bulgaria, which holds the bloc's six-month rotating presidency, told AFP.

The official said ambassadors from the EU countries agreed Wednesday the first of several hearings will take place on June 26 when European affairs ministers meet in Luxembourg.

Brussels in December triggered so-called article seven proceedings against Poland over "systemic threats" to the rule of law, which could eventually see Warsaw's EU voting rights suspended.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said his dialogue with Polish authorities, which began two years ago, had yielded some progress recently.

But legislative changes adopted in Warsaw since April in a bid to solve the row "are not sufficient to eliminate the clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law," Timmermans told the European Parliament.

Poland's rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) government began making changes to the judiciary after coming to power in late 2015. It says the reforms are needed to combat corruption and overhaul the judicial system still haunted by the communist era.

- 'Political control' -

With the lower courts already undermined, "it is now the Polish Supreme Court which is at risk of coming under political control," warned Timmermans, the commission's pointman on Poland.

Around a third of Poland's supreme court judges risk being fired or forced to retire next month under the reforms, he said.

Timmermans added that "last week the Commission therefore asked the Council to organise a formal hearing of Poland" in line with article seven of the EU treaty.

Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz later told Poland's PAP news agency: "We'll see what we'll do next -- we're ready to defend our position."

The article seven proceedings could much further down the line lead to the never-before-used "nuclear option", in which Poland's EU voting rights are suspended.

Hungary has already said it would veto such a step against its key ally but Brussels is hoping the proceedings will have significant symbolic power.

Three former Polish presidents, including anti-communist icon Lech Walesa, earlier on Wednesday urged the EU to defend the rule of law in their country, ahead of the decisions on the Supreme Court.

The row underlines growing east-west tensions within the European Union, with former Soviet bloc states like Poland and Hungary refusing to toe the Brussels line on several thorny issues including judicial and media independence as well as immigration

Timmermans said that he will continue pressing Poland to reverse course on its court reforms during a visit to Warsaw on Monday.