WARSAW – Poland’s legislators voted Friday to approve a new law on judicial accountability that the government hopes will meet European Union expectations and help unfreeze billions of euros in pandemic recovery funds for the country.
Brussels suspended the aid for Poland, saying the government's policies of exerting control over the judiciary are in violation of democratic principles. The EU has called for essential changes to be made before Poland can be granted access to the money.
The right-wing coalition government says that the provisions of the new law have been agreed on with Brussels and should lead to the release of more than 35 billion euros ($37 billion) of EU grants and loans. Some previous changes made by Poland didn't go far enough for the EU.
But the justice minister, who introduced the measures to wield political control over the judiciary, opposes the changes, threatening the government's future, and President Andrzej Duda says he hasn't been consulted on the new law.
Adding weight to the matter is the fact that a general election is scheduled for the autumn, and surveys suggest that the governing coalition might lose control of the parliament. The government, therefore, is seeking success in obtaining the EU funds, which could boost its voter support.
The lower house of parliament voted 203-52 with 189 abstentions to approve the new legislation, a vote that reflects the divisions inside the ruling coalition and the opposition's skepticism.
The head of an opposition agrarian party, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, was among those who abstained.
“This bill doesn't restore the rule of law," Kosiniak-Kamysz said before the vote in parliament. "That will only be possible after we (opposition) win the elections. ”
“But if this bill is a chance for the unblocking of the European funds, it is really important,” he said.
The leader of the Lewiatan confederation of business people, Henryka Bochniarz, noted that Poland urgently needs the EU funds for further development, but said that the new bill didn't really address the issues.
“We cannot agree to another pseudo-mending of Poland's court system being processed in the parliament, but which — in the opinion of law experts — offers no guarantees of judicial independence, does not mend the system, but is only to pretend that it meets the European Commission's expectations,” Bochniarz said in a statement.
The new regulations move the divisive disciplinary procedures regarding judges from the Supreme Court to the main administrative court. They also broaden the possibility for the sides in a court trial of vetting judicial independence and authority. Duda, whose authority includes appointing judges, has said he won't accept any provisions that undermine judicial appointments.
It wasn't immediately clear if the EU would be satisfied with the changes, but a European Commission spokesman told Polish state news agency PAP that the law was an important step towards meeting EU criteria.
“We will continue to follow closely the next steps of the ongoing adoption process and then review the final law adopted,” Christian Wigand told PAP.
The new law now goes to the opposition-controlled Senate for assessment and then requires approval from Duda.