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Poland exits Article 7, the EU's special procedure on rule of law

Poland has exited Article 7, the European Union's exceptional procedure to rein in rule-of-law violations.
Poland has exited Article 7, the European Union's exceptional procedure to rein in rule-of-law violations. Copyright European Union, 2024.
Copyright European Union, 2024.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has promised to restore the rule of law and reset relations between Warsaw and Brussels.

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Poland has officially exited Article 7, the European Union's exceptional mechanism to rein in countries that openly defy the bloc's fundamental values. 

"We consider there is no longer a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland," said European Commissioner Věra Jourová.

The decision, previewed earlier this month and formalised on Wednesday morning, ends a long-running saga that dates back to December 2017 when the European Commission triggered Article 7 —  known as the "nuclear option" because it can lead to the suspension of voting rights — over Poland's systematic erosion of judicial independence.

The clash stemmed from the sweeping reforms introduced by the hard-right Law and Justice (PiS) party, which rearranged the structure of courts, cut short the mandate of sitting judges and promoted party-friendly appointees to top positions.

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

"Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country's judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority," the executive said in 2017.

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

In 2021, the country's Constitutional Court, whose legitimacy had been undermined by the changes, issued an explosive ruling that challenged the primacy of EU law and the validity of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The moves further exacerbated the spat between Warsaw and Brussels and raised serious fears that Poland would break away from the bloc's legal system.

But the 2023 general elections ushered in a new era with the election of Donald Tusk, a former president of the European Council, as prime minister. Tusk moved fast to repair diplomatic ties and turn the page on the dispute.

Work is not over

Tusk's government then presented an "action plan" of nine laws to restore judicial independence, adopted a ministerial order to cease unjustified proceedings against magistrates, and made commitments to respect the ECJ and the primacy of EU law. 

The overture quickly paid off: by late February, the Commission unblocked €137 billion in recovery and cohesion funds that Warsaw had been denied access to. By April, it received its first payment of €6.3 billion in grants and loans.

Officials in Brussels, however, acknowledge the work is not yet over: the bills under the "action plan" are far from becoming law and could still be vetoed by President Andrzej Duda, who has ample ideological differences with Tusk.

"We can see in practice the situation is evolving favourably in Poland," a senior Commission official said earlier this month. "The threat to the rule of law has severely decreased. We need to continue working with Poland with other tools at our disposal."

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.

Hungary, which is still subject to Article 7 and unable to access recovery funds, has taken exception to the Commissin's fast pace, questioning why the decision was based on political commitments rather than waiting for the final result of the "action plan." 

"The Commission's assessment seems to be a purely political product that confirms double standards and goes blatantly against its previous position in rule of law-related issues," Bóka János, Hungary's minister for EU affairs, has said.

"It reinforces the view that Article 7 is nothing but a tool for political blackmailing."

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