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European Commission - Speech - [Check Against Delivery]

Remarks of Frans Timmermans on European Commission action to preserve the rule of law in Poland

Brussels, 26 July 2017

Thank you very much and good afternoon to all of you. Here we are again.

After last week's College we discussed the concerns the Commission has about the reform of the Polish judiciary and the state of our Rule of Law dialogue with the Polish authorities.

Last week the College expressed grave concerns about 4 legislative acts recently proposed in Poland.

We have now finalised a comprehensive legal analysis, confirming that the 4 laws, as adopted by the Polish Parliament, would have a very significant negative impact on the independence of the Polish judiciary and would increase the systemic threat to the rule of law.

So as announced last week, I am here to tell you how the Commission has decided to address this issue.

In this past week, some things have changed in Poland, and some things have not.

We extended our hand to the Polish authorities for a dialogue aimed at redressing the situation and urged the Polish authorities to put the new laws on hold and re-engage.

That is not quite what has happened, but we must acknowledge and welcome that President Duda has announced his decision to veto 2 of the 4 laws.

However, the fact that 2 of the 4 laws have been signed and that work will continue on the matters addressed in the other 2, means that we must set out clearly our concerns in an additional Rule of Law Recommendation today.

The Commission recommends the Polish authorities to solve all the problems identified within one month.

Today's third Recommendation builds on the two previous Recommendations from 2016 which focused on the systemic threat to the rule of law from measures that have undermined the independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal.

Given that independence of the judiciary is also a key component of the rule of law, the current reforms increase significantly the systemic threat to rule of law identified in the previous Recommendations.

The new concerns raised by all 4 laws on the judiciary are included in our Recommendation, allowing the Polish authorities to take them into account in any future reforms of the judiciary to uphold the rule of law and to comply with EU law and with European standards on judicial independence.

I saw some remarks in the media from Polish authorities saying: "Well, they need to be precise in what they want from us, the Commission." I think we have been very precise in our Recommendation.

I explained the College's substantial concerns last week - and our Recommendation will be published - so I will not repeat all the details here but rather let you read them yourselves.

However, let me stress one important point.

The College discussed last week the option of using Article 7 if the situation did not improve, and our Recommendation gives a clear indication of what actions by the Polish authorities would bring us to that point.

The Recommendation does not prevent Article 7 being activated directly in case a sudden deterioration requires immediate and stronger action

The Commission's Recommendation asks the Polish authorities not to take any measure to dismiss or force the retirement of Supreme Court judges.

If such a measure is taken the Commission is ready to immediately trigger the Article 7(1) procedure.

The College also agreed last week to prepare infringement proceedings for breaches of EU law, to be adopted where we have clear legal grounds concerning laws already in force.

The Law on the Ordinary Courts Organisation has been signed by the President of the Republic. It raises concerns which would justify the launching of an infringement procedure as soon as it is published.

One of our legal concerns is gender discrimination through the introduction of a different retirement age for female and male judges. Now the retirement age is the same, 67, and they introduce a different retirement age. This, in our view, is in violation of Article 157 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, and Directive 2006/54 on gender equality in employment.

The Commission also believes that the discretionary powers of the Minister of Justice to prolong the mandate of judges who have reached the retirement age, as well as his discretion to dismiss and appoint court presidents, would undermine the independence of Polish courts.

These powers would violate the obligation to provide an effective remedy as required by Article 19(1) of the Treaty on European Union and Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Given that we have clear legal grounds, and that we are just waiting for the publication of this law before the possible breach of EU law becomes a reality, the Commission today empowered me - in agreement with President Juncker - to send a Letter of Formal Notice once the Law on the Ordinary Courts Organisation has been published.

And we will give the Polish authorities one month to reply, from the date this letter is sent.

For now, this is where we stand.

And let me just underline that the Commission's hand is still extended to the Polish authorities, in the hope of a constructive dialogue.

In the meanwhile, we will watch developments vigilantly and act accordingly.

Thank you very much.

SPEECH/17/2170

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