Poland changes judiciary law; demands EU release COVID funds

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Polish President Andrzej Duda, right, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speak after at a joint news conference with Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the headquarters of Poland's Power Grid in Konstancin-Jeziorna, Poland, Thursday, June 2, 2022. The independence of Poland's courts is at the heart of a dispute with the European Union, which has withheld billions of euros in pandemic recovery funds. (AP Photo/Michal Dyjuk)

WARSAW – Poland has replaced a controversial body that disciplined judges with a new accountability panel — the latest twist in a long-running dispute with the European Union over the country's judicial independence — and Poland's leading politician said Tuesday he hoped the EU would have a “proper” reaction to the move.

The EU has frozen billions of euros of pandemic funds for Poland over criticism of its rule of law record.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski insisted that Poland has met the EU's demands for changes to the regulations on the judiciary.

“I hope the reaction will be proper and in line with the (EU) treaties,” Kaczynski said, reiterating his long-term view that EU bodies have been violating the bloc's treaties in their approach to Poland.

President Andrzej Duda signed the changes to the disciplinary regulations into law late Monday.

Kaczynski, the main leader of the ruling party, also said the war in Ukraine, Poland’s neighbour, has recently changed the EU’s approach to the government in Warsaw for better and there are some “elements of goodwill” to be seen. Poland is supporting Ukraine's struggle against the Russian invasion and has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees.

However, the changes signed by Duda are largely seen as superficial and continuing political control over judges, which is a major sticking point between Warsaw and Brussels.

The EU’s chief executive, Ursula von der Leyen, has warned that no money will be disbursed if Poland fails to reach the “milestones” in granting judicial independence: abolishing the disciplinary chamber, rewriting its rules and allowing judges sanctioned or suspended by the chamber to have their cases reviewed.

The changes authored by Duda remove the Supreme Court’s Disciplinary Chamber, which has been used to sanction outspoken judges. It will be replaced by a new accountability body appointed by the president.

Only one of the many judges disciplined for being critical of the government's actions has been reinstated, but was appointed to a different section of the court and sent on leave.

Von der Leyen has faced criticism last week from centrist lawmakers in the European Parliament after the European Commission, the EU's executive body. conditionally accepted Poland's pandemic recovery plan, opening the possibility of disbursement of funds totaling about 36 billion euros ($39 billion). The lawmakers argued the decision was premature, as Poland has failed to address EU's conditions.

The Disciplinary Chamber has cost Poland dearly. The European Court of Justice fined Poland a record 1 million euros per day for failing to dismantle it.