Exclusive-Poland asks EU to hold off fines for disciplining judges - letter


People carry flags, as they take part in a rally in support of Poland's membership in the European Union after the country's Constitutional Tribunal ruled on the primacy of the constitution over EU law, undermining a key tenet of European integration, in Warsaw, Poland, October 10, 2021. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Poland asked the European Union's executive to hold off fines for undermining judicial independence, saying it is working to dismantle its contentious disciplinary chamber for judges, according to a Jan. 10 letter seen by Reuters.

Warsaw currently owes 70 million euros for failing to halt immediately all work by the chamber pending a final verdict by the EU's top court on a scheme widely criticised for enabling the government to sideline judges who question its policies.

The letter is the latest development in one of many battles between Poland's ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party and the EU over the erosion of democratic checks and balances.

Poland's EU ambassador, Andrzej Sados, said in the letter that the head of the Supreme Court had already decided to stop handing some cases to the Disciplinary Chamber, and that the government was looking at further changes to the judiciary.

"I ask that the Commission holds off on sending calls for payment until the planned reforms are carried out," he wrote.

A Commission official told Reuters such arguments were neither new nor sufficient and that the EU executive would send the first invoice to Warsaw as early as Friday.

The Commission said this week it had ways to secure the fines owed, including by deducting them from development funds earmarked for Poland if PiS continues to refuse to pay.

SWEEPING CHANGES

PiS first introduced the Disciplinary Chamber in 2017 as part of sweeping changes to the judiciary that have also promoted many new judges and given top roles to party allies.

The letter did not detail how or when Warsaw would revoke the chamber, which has the power to reassign or suspend judges.

Poland's Deputy Justice Minister Sebastian Kaleta, a member of United Poland, a hardline eurosceptic coalition partner of PiS, said halting the chamber's work would stop it examining criminal offence cases such as drink driving brought against judges.

"The best solution would be to continue judicial reform with the reorganisation of the Supreme Court," he told a radio broadcast on Friday.

PiS and United Poland have been at loggerheads for months over how to respond EU demands.

The disputes with the EU over democratic standards have already cost Poland its reputation as the poster child of post-communist transition, as well as access to billions of euros in European pandemic recovery funds.

At stake are more EU development funds, a key motor of Poland's growth since it joined the bloc in 2004.

(Additional reporting by Alan Charlish, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska,; Editing by John Chalmers and Gareth Jones)

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