Polish lawmakers seek consensus on judicial reform to unblock EU cash

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By Pawel Florkiewicz and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk

WARSAW, Dec 14 (Reuters) – Poland’s government is hoping to win parliament’s support on judicial reforms, a contentious issue that could fracture the ruling coalition on the eve of an election year, but one that is vital for unlocking access to European Union funds.

The country’s public finances have come under huge strain due to the war in Ukraine and access to to the 23.9 billion euros ($25.40 billion) in grants and 11.5 billion euros in cheap loans is crucial for emerging Europe’s largest economy.

European Affairs Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek said on Tuesday that Poland is planning to submit draft amendments to a law on its Supreme Court to parliament this week.

The draft could face resistance from the ultra-conservative United Poland party, a junior member in the ruling coalition, and likely force the government to seek the support of the opposition.

“The intention of the proposed amendments is to eliminate potential doubts related to the implementation by the Republic of Poland of its obligations,” the justification of the draft amendments said.

It said the changes would result in the implementation of “a reform strengthening the independence and impartiality of the judiciary”.

Poland has been embroiled in a long-running row with Brussels about judicial reforms, which the bloc says undermine the independence of the courts.

The most recent element of the dispute concerned a disciplinary chamber for judges. The EU’s top court has demanded that it be disbanded and imposed fines of 1 million euros a day on Poland for failing to do so.

Poland replaced the chamber with a different body, but critics said this did not resolve the core problem of judge’s independence being undermined.

CHANGES

Under the proposed changes published late on Tuesday, the Supreme Administrative Court would deal with disciplinary cases.

Judges would also not face disciplinary action for questioning the independence of colleagues appointed by organs critics say are politicised.

Szynkowski vel Sek said the European Commission had accepted these proposals.

However, Laurent Pech, a law professor and Dean of UCD Sutherland School of Law in Dublin, labelled the Polish proposals “a joke”.

“We will create a new Disciplinary Chamber 3.0 while leaving unaddressed all systemic issues, including the presence of… fake judges in SAC (Supreme Administrative Court) who cannot lawfully adjudicate,” he wrote on Twitter.

The measures could also face opposition from United Poland party, which has been implacably opposed to compromises with Brussels as it believes that will undermine Poland’s sovereignty.

United Poland lawmaker Marcin Warchol said on Wednesday the party needed to familiarise itself with the draft amendments before making a decision, but that the issue was “difficult”.

If United Poland opposes the amendments, the government will need opposition support.

“We will work on the bill,” said opposition lawmaker Borys Budka after a meeting with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. “Its final shape will determine whether it will find support from our group.”

He said a first reading of the bill could take place on Thursday and it could possibly be voted on next week.

On Tuesday Hungary, which was in conflict with the EU over the rule of law, reached a last-minute deal with Brussels to secure billions in funding next year, which will help it avert a severe hit to its currency and bonds.

($1 = 0.9409 euros)

(Reporting by Pawel Florkiewicz and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, writing by Alan Charlish; Editing by Arun Koyyur)

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