EU orders Poland to pay 70 million euros in spat over judges

Audacy - The Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The European Union is ordering Poland to pay a fine of nearly 70 million euros ($80 million) for its failure to shut down a disciplinary chamber with the power to suspend or otherwise punish judges for their rulings, an official said Thursday.

The move is just the latest in a series of confrontations between the EU's executive branch, the European Commission, and the right-wing government in Warsaw over the state of the country’s justice system, rule of law standards and media freedoms.

The key point of contention during a standoff into its seventh year centered on moves by the ruling nationalist party to increase political control over the courts and judges, which the party leaders describe as a way to fight corruption and inefficiency. Critics view it as an undemocratic power grab.

The government in Warsaw has denounced EU actions against its decisions on the judiciary as politically motivated and has pushed for years to shake off the guidance and supervisory role of the EU justice system.

Government spokesman Piotr Mueller on Thursday reiterated the government’s position that the Commission was overstepping its authority laid out in EU law, and sought to “deeply interfere” with the exclusive rights of member states to run their own affairs.

The European Court of Justice ruled last year that “the disciplinary regime for judges in Poland is not compatible with EU law,” since it opens up the independent judicial branch to political interference.

Despite the ruling, Poland's government hasn't suspended the Disciplinary Chamber, which operates from the Supreme Court. Warsaw was ordered to pay 1 million euros ($1.1 million) a day until it complies with the ruling.

The commission had analyzed a reply sent by Poland in response to the court's concerns on Dec. 22, commission spokesman Christian Wigand said. It found that “Poland failed to provide evidence” that it complied with the court's order of last July.

“The European Commission has therefore sent the first call for payments yesterday (Wednesday),” Wigand said. “It remains for Poland to urgently comply with the court's order,” he said, and he added that Brussels would continue to send payment demands on a monthly basis until then.

This first payment demand is for the period from Nov. 3 until Jan. 10.

The development comes a day after the commission said it had also started the process to deduct millions of euros from payments to Poland in order to cover fines imposed on Warsaw for ignoring a court injunction to close down a coal mine.

The European Court of Justice ruled last year that Poland should close the open pit brown coal mine in Turow, near the border with the Czech Republic. In its injunction, it ruled in favor of the Czech government, which complained that the mine drains groundwater from villages on the Czech side of the border, while also causing dust and noise pollution.

The court ordered Poland to pay a daily fine of 500,000 euros ($567,000) as long as it continues to operate the mine.

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Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.