European First Vice-President Frans Timmermans speaks during a press conference on further strengthening of the rule of law in the EU at the European Commission in Brussels on April 3, 2019. (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Frans Timmermans, European Commission first vice-president, calls for further strengthening of the rule of law within the EU at a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday © AFP

Brussels has called for tougher measures to protect the rule of law in EU member states, stepping up its dispute with Poland and Romania over allegations of growing authoritarianism.

Frans Timmermans, European Commission first vice-president, announced fresh action against Warsaw over its overhaul of Poland’s judiciary. He also warned Romania over moves to scrap senior politicians’ corruption convictions.

Mr Timmerman’s salvos came as he urged a revamp of bloc safeguards against creeping autocracy. “A problem in one member state is a problem for the union as whole,” he told reporters in Brussels in Wednesday. “Unfortunately, rule-of-law concerns have multiplied around the union over the past years.” 

The commission launched the first stage of possible new legal action against Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice party is trying to give politicians sweeping powers over the judiciary.

Mr Timmermans said a new disciplinary regime for judges aimed “to systemically subject judges to the political control of the executive”.

The government says the new procedures are designed to deal with wrongdoing. However, judges have decried them as “Kafkaesque” and Poland’s ombudsman has warned of a “chilling effect” on public debate. 

A Polish official dismissed the commission decision as a political move. Mr Timmermans is the candidate of the Socialists & Democrats grouping for commission president, although he and the EU’s executive insist his official duties are kept separate from his campaigning. 

“It is not surprising that they’re doing this now as Timmermans is coming to Poland at the weekend to support Wiosna,” the Polish official said, referring to a new opposition party set up by leftwing politician Robert Biedron. “I suppose it is meant to benefit both their parties.” 

The commission action was welcomed by opposition politicians and Krystian Markiewicz, head of Poland’s judges’ association. Mr Markiewicz called for the European Court of Justice to suspend proceedings against judges launched under the new law.

Poland — along with Hungary — is already subject to a so-called “Article 7” disciplinary investigation by its fellow EU member states. While the processes could in theory end in sanctions including suspending the bloc voting rights of Warsaw and Budapest, both capitals have vowed to veto any move against the other. 

Mr Timmermans also vowed the EU executive would retaliate “swiftly” against Bucharest if it pressed ahead with a proposed law that could wipe the criminal records of top officials.

One possible beneficiary is Liviu Dragnea, who leads the ruling Social Democrats and is the country’s most powerful politician but is barred from the premiership because of a previous conviction for electoral fraud. He has denied any wrongdoing. 

Mr Timmermans said Brussels needed to see results “urgently” after raising more than 40 areas of rule-of-law concern with Romania, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

Tensions have grown over the case of Laura Codruta Kovesi, who is candidate to head a new pan-EU prosecutor’s office but has been placed under domestic investigation, banned from travel and forbidden to speak to the media. 

Viorica Dancila, Romania’s prime minister, said she was surprised by Mr Timmermans' statement, adding that the commission was asking her government to “stop investigations”.

Tudorel Toader, justice minister, said Brussels and Mr Timmermans were interfering with Romania’s right to legislate.

On Wednesday evening, Romania’s Supreme Court dismissed a set of restrictive measures against Ms Kovesi imposed last week by a body that investigates judges and prosecutors. 

The so-called “judicial control”, which banned Ms Kovesi from speaking to the press or leaving the country, was lifted the day before a new round of negotiations on the appointment of the chief European prosecutor was set to begin in Brussels. 

Join the Europe Talks project

The Financial Times is collaborating with 16 news organisations for an experiment called Europe Talks, where we connect thousands of Europeans for face-to-face conversations across borders. Would you like to be involved? 

Click here to find out more.

Additional reporting by Evon Huber in Warsaw 

Twitter: @mikepeeljourno

Get alerts on EU eastern tensions when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article