European Commission moves to impose fines against Poland

10 September 2021

After years of rhetorical and legal wrangling over Poland’s widely disputed judicial reform, the European Commission this week eventually showed some teeth and called on the European Court of Justice to impose heavy financial penalties against the Polish authorities

After the conservative Polish Government’s repeated refusal to rectify the deep concerns over its judicial reforms in line with two July rulings by the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ), on Tuesday, the European Commission took the extraordinary step to ask the ECJ to invoke fines against the central European country. Under the EU’s Treaties, the ECJ can impose daily fines on a Member State in case of a refusal to abide by the ECJ’s legally-binding decisions. 

On 15 July 2021, the European Court of Justice ruled that Poland’s 2019-introduced judicial reforms, including the creation of a disciplinary regime for judges in Poland is not compatible with EU law. 

In its ruling, the EU’s highest court ruled that the Polish disciplinary regime, in fact, undermines the judicial independence of Polish judges and fails to ensure the necessary guarantees to protect judges from political control, thus undermining the independence of the entire legal system. 

However, despite the ECJ’s July judgements, and a subsequent Polish assurance that it will suspend the Chamber’s work, it continues to operate. 

Speaking on the Commission’s announcement, Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency and a long-term target of Polish Ministers, Věra Jourová, said that “the rulings of the European Court of Justice must be respected across the EU,” adding that “this is a must to build and nurture the necessary mutual trust between Member States and citizens alike.” The comments were echoed by her Commission colleague for Justice, Didier Reynders, who stressed that the Polish authority’s failure to adhere by EU law is the reason why “the Commission, as Guardian of the Treaties, is taking action today.”

According to the Commission, any fines granted by the Court would be deducted from its allocation of EU funds, specifically the post-COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Fund. According to an interview with the Financial Times, Commissioner Reynders argues that the financial penalty should be as high as €1 million per day. Currently, Poland is expected to be granted a total of €36 billion from the Recovery Fund. 

Meanwhile, Poland’s Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, accused the Commission of launching an act of “legal hybrid war” and unfound “political aggression.” 

The current escalation is only the latest in an increasingly fructuous relationship between Poland’s PiS Government and the EU’s Brussels institutions over deep divisions in the interpretation of common European social values, the rule of law and overall legal supremacy on the continent.