Brussels worries the new law could be used to target opposition politicians in the run-up to Poland's general election later this year.
The European Commission has launched legal action against Poland over a highly controversial law that establishes a special committee to investigate cases of so-called "Russian influence" inside the country.
"The College (of Commissioners) agreed to start an infringement procedure by sending a letter of formal notice in relation to the new law on the state committee for examination of Russian influence," Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commission's executive vice-president, said on Wednesday afternoon.
The letter will be sent on Thursday.
A letter of formal notice is the first step of an infringement procedure, which can end up in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) if the wrongdoing is not eventually addressed. The ECJ can impose daily fines on a member state that refuses to comply with its rulings, as has been the case with Poland in the past.
At the core of the present dispute is a new law that sets up a committee with prosecutor-like powers to hold hearings on public officials and companies that are suspected of having acted to "the detriment of the interests" of Poland between the years 2007 and 2022.
The committee's chair will be elected by the prime minister.
Potential penalties, referred to in the law as "remedial measures," include bans on holding a security clearance, a position that involves the management of public funds or a weapons license.
The prohibitions could last up to 10 years.
The Polish government, led by the hard-right Law and Justice party (PiS), says the committee is necessary to strengthen the country's "cohesion and internal security" in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"The scale of Russian influence on the functioning of the Republic of Poland is still not fully explored," a government spokesperson told Euronews last week, insisting the committee "shall not have the power to deprive anyone of their public rights."
But the assurances have failed to contain the fallout.
Shortly after President Andrzej Duda signed the law last week, both the European Commission and the US Department of State issued critical statements, voicing serious concerns about the legislation's consequences for Polish democracy.
Brussels and Washington worry the special committee could be used to target politicians in the run-up to the country's general election, expected to be held this autumn, and deprive candidates of the right to a fair trial.
Critics have decried the law as anti-constitutional because, in their view, it violates the separation of powers by combining competences of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary into one single body. The definition of "Russian influence" is also under scrutiny for being overly vague and broad.
The law "grossly violates the constitutional principles of a democratic state of law, the tripartite separation of powers and independence of the judiciary, and the presumption of innocence. It is anti-democratic and anti-EU," said Iustitia, one of the main judges' associations in Poland.
"The transfer of the competence to determine the responsibility from an independent court to a quasi-administrative political body, equipped with oppressive repressive measures, is another step towards an authoritarian state."
In reaction to the growing backlash, President Duda offered on Friday three key amendments that appeared deliberately designed to tackle the most problematic aspects of the legislation.
- All the penalties will be removed. Instead, the committee will simply issue a statement declaring that a person has acted under "Russian influence" and is not fit to perform public duties.
- The committee will be made up of non-partisan experts. No member of the parliament or the senate will be allowed to sit in the body.
- Those under investigation will be able to file an appeal against the committee's decisions in a common court anywhere in Poland. Under the present legislation, appeals can only be filed in an administrative court.
Duda's amendments, however, are simply a proposal and still need to be discussed by the Polish parliament. In the meantime, the original law has entered into force.
Its final approval triggered massive protests on Sunday, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets of Warsaw to voice their anger at the nationalist government and its perceived anti-democratic actions.
The law has been dubbed "Lex Tusk" because it could possibly target Donald Tusk, a high-profile politician who served as prime minister between 2007 and 2014 and currently leads Civic Platform (PO), Poland's largest opposition party.
The current government believes Tusk's executive was excessively Russian-friendly and deepened the country's reliance on Russian fossil fuels, claims that Tusk rejects.
The new infringement procedure marks a new chapter in the Brussels-Warsaw confrontation over the rule of law and comes just two days after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) struck down a controversial judicial reform introduced by the Polish government in 2019.
The ECJ concluded the reform, which has been extremely controversial since its enactment, violated EU law and undermined the right to have access to an independent and impartial judiciary.
This article has been updated with more details about the legal case.