Soon after it was elected with an absolute majority in October 2015 — a first since liberal democracy was introduced in 1989 — the Polish government added five 'politically friendly' judges to the country's Constitutional Tribunal, in a move seen by critics as making it easier to push through legislation with less opposition.
The European Commission has launched an investigation because it believes this could break its 'rule of law mechanism' which seeks to rein in EU member governments, whose policies and legislation are seen to pose a "systematic threat" to EU values. Although the mechanism was passed last year, it has never been invoked, so this could be the first time it is tested on a member state which is seen to be behaving undemocratically.
The Law and Justice Party led by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo also introduced a new law which allows the government to appoint the heads of the Polish state media, leading to protests that the move was effectively removing the independence of the broadcasters.
The move has put Brussels and Warsaw at loggerheads and is likely to cause a split within Europe with Hungary expressing solidarity with Poland amid concerns that the European Commission is meddling in sovereign affairs.
Rule of Law
Announcing the investigation, Commission's First Vice-President Timmermans said: "We have decided that the Commission will carry out a preliminary assessment on this matter under the Rule of Law Framework.
"We are taking this step in light of the information currently available to us, in particular the fact that binding rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal are currently not respected — which I believe is a serious matter in any rule of law-dominated state. I am also conscious of the recent reform to the media law, which raises issues relating to freedom and pluralism of the media," Timmermans said.
Poland's Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said Thursday she does not believe the EU could impose sanctions on Poland because the "European Commission cannot punish anyone."
The investigation was supported by lawmakers in the European Parliament with the President of the Socialists and Democrats Group, Gianni Pittella, saying: "Rule of law is a fundamental pillar of the EU. Poland, as a member of the European family, must respect it. We praise the European Commission for having swiftly and legitimately addressed the worrisome laws recently passed by the Polish government, which risk undermining the very foundation of this principle.
"We are on the side of the thousands of Polish people who took to the streets to voice their concerns and criticisms about the risks Poland faces should its government turn back the clock on the progress the country has made.
"For Socialists and Democrats, the respect of rule of law knows no political colour. We have consistently and repeatedly denounced any attempt to infringe upon EU fundamental values and principles, be it in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia or any other member of the European Union."