Brussels moves to close rule of law procedure against Poland

Donald Tuks and Ursula von der Leyen belong to the same political family, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP),
Donald Tuks and Ursula von der Leyen belong to the same political family, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), Copyright European Union, 2024.
Copyright European Union, 2024.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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The European Commission has announced it is taking the first steps to close the Article 7 procedure against Poland.


The special supervision has been ongoing since 2017 over the country's systematic breaches of fundamental values and the continued erosion of judicial independence. As a result, Poland has been compelled to appear in regular hearings before the other member states and account for its progression – or regression – in the field.

Only Poland and Hungary have ever been subject to Article 7.

The announcement, made unexpectedly on Monday, indicates there is no longer a "clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law" based on a set of legislative and non-legislative changes that Poland has proposed to reverse the negative trend.

The decision still needs the validation of member states before Article 7 can be formally withdrawn. A meeting of European affairs ministers is scheduled for later this month, suggesting the conclusion will arrive soon.

"Today, marks a new chapter for Poland," said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. "It is the result of their hard work and determined reform efforts. The ongoing restoration of the rule of law in Poland is great for the Polish people and for our Union as a whole."

The breakthrough represents a political victory for Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who, upon coming into office last year, made the reset of Warsaw-Brussels relations a top priority for his pro-European executive.

Tusk's government presented in mid-February an "action plan" of nine draft laws specifically designed to restore judicial independence from the country's highest tribunal to the most ordinary courts. It also made commitments to abide by the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and respect the primacy of EU law.

The overture paid off quickly: by late February, the Commission unblocked €137 billion in recovery and cohesion funds that Poland had been denied due to its democratic backsliding and lack of judicial guarantees to protect the bloc's finances.

By April, Warsaw received its first payment of €6.3 billion in grants and loans.

The "action plan," though, aims higher than financial gains: its ultimate goal is to bring Article 7 to a close and relieve Poland from the bad name that comes with it.

Justice Minister Adam Bodnar, who has spearheaded the concentrated push, wanted the announcement to coincide with the country's 20th accession membership on 1 May. Despite missing the deadline, Bodnar greeted the news on social media and said Poland was "determined and devoted to our common European values."

However, none of the nine bills foreseen under the "action plan" have reached the finish line, including key amendments to the Constitutional Tribunal and the National Council of the Judiciary. Meanwhile, the veto power of President Andrzej Duda, who has ample ideological differences with Donald Tusk, threatens to derail the process.

The Commission acknowledges the work is not over but believes the initiatives taken so far, such as a ministerial order to dismiss unjustified proceedings against judges, are enough to conclude the serious risks have subdued to tolerable levels.

"We can see in practice the situation is evolving favourably in Poland," said a senior Commission official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The threat to the rule of law has severely decreased. We need to continue working with Poland with other tools at our disposal," like the annual rule-of-law report and the recovery fund's milestones.

Even if the "action plan" is thwarted or left incomplete, "it doesn't necessarily mean we're back in Article 7 territory," the official added.

End of a feud

For Warsaw, Monday's announcement is an opportunity to turn the page on the years-long confrontation with Brussels and put the Eastern nation firmly back into the mainstream.

The clash began after Law and Justice (PiS), a hard-right, Eurosceptic party, came to power in 2015 and introduced sweeping reforms that rearranged the structure of courts, cut short the mandate of sitting judges and promoted party-friendly appointees, prompting accusations of unlawfulness and cronyism.

The Commission fought hard against the overhaul, arguing it altered the separation of powers, hindered the correct application of European law, left investors unprotected and endangered cooperation with other member states.


In December 2017, Brussels determined there was a "clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law" in the country and, for the first time, triggered Article 7, a radical option that in its last stage can suspend voting rights. (This, however, never happened.)

"Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country's judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority," the Commission said back then.

Multiple legal cases followed the Article 7 activation, some still pending.

Undeterred, the PiS-led government moved ahead with its plans and passed a controversial reform that empowered the disciplinary chamber of the Supreme Court to punish magistrates according to the content of their rulings.

The Commission filed a lawsuit, which led to interim measures that Poland blatantly disobeyed. In turn, the ECJ slapped a €1 million daily fine, which was in place until the tribunal struck down the reform in June 2023.


PiS eventually relented and adopted a new law to abolish the disciplinary regime and replace it with a chamber of professional liability. This set the stage for a wider rapprochement that Tusk accelerated after assuming office.Although separate on paper, the unblocking of EU funds and the conclusion of Article 7 were seen as intertwined steps to mend ties with Brussels.

PiS officials have denounced the fast pace of the Commission's response, calling it politically motivated and detached from reality. "What changes has Donald Tusk actually effected? I'll answer - none. This was a farce designed to remove PiS from power," said Arkadiusz Mularczyk, a long-serving PiS lawmaker.

Jakub Jaraczewski, a researcher at Democracy Reporting International who has closely followed the Warsaw-Brussels dispute, described Monday's news as a "much-delayed funeral of Article 7" and highlighted the procedure's inherent weakness.

"Reliant on the political will of member states and with its most potent sanction requiring a practically unattainable unanimous agreement in the Council, Article 7 never got anywhere it promised to go, which was to ensure that EU values are respected by all member states," Jaraczewski told Euronews.

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