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Poland defies Brussels: declares parts of EU law not compatible with constitution

Representatives of the Polish opposition interpreted the ruling as a sign that PiS wants to lead Poland out of the EU
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) is welcomed by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at The Royal Lazienki. Photo: Attila Husejnow/SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire/dpa
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (R) with German Chancellor Angela during a meeting in September. Photo: Attila Husejnow/dpa.

Parts of EU law are not compatible with Poland's constitution, the country's top court ruled on Thursday, setting up a potential fight with the European Union.

"The attempt by the European Court of Justice [ECJ] to involve itself with Polish legal mechanisms violates ... the rules that give priority to the constitution and rules that respect sovereignty amid the process of European integration," read the ruling.

The European Commission has used EU treaties to justify its right to have a say in questions of the rule of law in Poland.

For example, according to the ECJ, a new procedure for appointing the Supreme Court in Poland could violate EU law. That ruling means that, in theory, the ECJ could force Poland to repeal parts of the controversial judicial reforms.

But Thursday's Polish ruling means its courts would be able to overturn EU verdicts found not to be in alignment with Polish law.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki had asked the Polish Constitutional Court to review a March 2 ECJ ruling in which the top EU judges had stated that EU law can force member states to disregard individual provisions in national law, even if it is constitutional law.

According to the ECJ, a new procedure for appointing the Supreme Court in Poland could violate EU law. The ruling means that, in theory, the ECJ could force Poland to repeal parts of the controversial judicial reforms implemented by the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party government.

The European Commission has already brought several cases against Poland to the ECJ, arguing that Warsaw is refusing to adhere to treaties. It has raised questions about the independence of Polish courts, the same ones which have now questioned the applicability of EU law.

Ignore EU directives

The head of the Polish court is Julia Przylebska, a close ally of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the ruling PiS, which has been behind many of the legal changes in Poland.

"The organs of the EU are dealing outside the realms of competence that Poland recognizes them with," Przylebska said during the reading of the verdict. That echoes previous arguments from Polish leaders when they pushed for the country to ignore EU directives.

Poland has frequently pointed to a May 2020 ruling by Germany's top court, in which it ruled that an EU bond-buying programme that had already been approved by the ECJ was in violation of Germany's constitution.

However, the German ruling never gave German law automatic priority over EU law, instead maintaining that German law would only take precedence in a few, specific fields.

The Brussels authority immediately made it clear that the basic principles of the European legal order would be upheld: EU law takes precedence over national law, it said. All rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) are binding for the authorities and courts of the member states.

The judgement will now be analysed in detail and then further steps will be decided. "The commission will not hesitate to make use of its powers under the treaties to safeguard the uniform application and integrity of [European] Union law," it said in a statement on Thursday.

"Today's verdict in Poland cannot remain without consequences. The primacy of EU law must be undisputed. Violating it means challenging one of the founding principles of our union," president of the European Parliament David Sassoli said, calling on the commission to "take the necessary action."

EU reaction

What concrete reaction that might be was also left open by EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders at a press conference in Brussels. However, he held out the prospect that it could come quickly - within days or weeks.

The powerful PiS leader and Polish deputy head of government Kaczynski was triumphant after the ruling, saying the EU had "nothing to say" about the judiciary and did not have the right to interfere in certain spheres of Polish life.

"The priority of constitutional law over other legal sources is literally derived from Poland's constitution," government spokesperson Piotr Muller wrote on Twitter.

Representatives of the Polish opposition interpreted the ruling as a sign that PiS wants to lead Poland out of the EU. "Non-recognition of ECJ rulings is de facto the path to Polexit," wrote Borys Budka of the liberal-conservative opposition alliance Civic Coalition. Poland could lose billions in EU aid, Budka feared.

A wider dispute between the EU and Poland has been increasing in intensity.

The European Commission is currently withholding billions of euros in coronavirus aid for Poland because of concerns about whether the principle of the rule of law is being upheld in the country.

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