The European Union warned Poland to avoid endangering democracy and the rule of law after the country’s lower chamber of parliament passed a controversial constitutional court law amendment before Christmas (22 December). According to the opponents of the law, including former President Lech Walesa, the new law will weaken the separation of power and paralyze the constitutional court. The European Commission sent a letter to Poland’s leadership urging them not the put reforms into force until all consequences “have been fully and properly assessed.” The letter further said that the Commission “attaches great importance to preventing the emergence of situations whereby the rule of law in (a) Member State could be called into question”.
The new law requires that the court’s rulings now need two-third majority from a simple majority while demanding 13 judges to be present instead of nine for most cases. Poland’s Supreme Court said that the amendment heavily interferes with the functioning of the court and its independence. The law also introduces mandatory waiting periods of 3 to 6 months between the time when a request for ruling is made and a verdict. Currently it is a fortnight.
After the law was adopted by 235 votes to 181 with four abstentions, a wave of protests has spread across the country. Thousands of people demonstrated in Warsaw and other major cities last weekend ahead of the vote, saying that the ruling party – Law and Justice – is undermining the very foundations of democracy. Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity party helped end communism in Poland, joined the criticism of the new government and called for a referendum to hold early elections. “This government is acting against Poland’s interests, against freedom, against democracy, and is ridiculing us around the world,” he said and added that he was “ashamed to travel abroad.”