23 December 2017

The European Commission’s Activation of Article 7: Better Late than Never?

‘The European Union is first and foremost a Union of values and of the rule of law. The conquest of these values is the result of our history. They are the hard core of the Union’s identity and enable every citizen to identify with it. The Commission is convinced that in this Union of values it will not be necessary to apply penalties pursuant to Article 7 of the Union Treaty’

European Commission, 15 October 2003

1. What has just happened?

On Wednesday, the European Commission reacted to the continuing deterioration of the rule of law situation in Poland by (i) issuing a fourth Rule of Law Recommendation, which complements three previous Recommendations, adopted on 27 July 2016, 21 December 2016 and 27 July 2017; (ii) submitting a Reasoned Proposal for a Decision of the Council on the determination of a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law by Poland under Article 7(1) TEU and (iii) referring the Polish Law on the Ordinary Courts Organisation to the Court of Justice of the EU under Article 258 TFEU and in the context of which the Commission is raising for the first time (to the best of our knowledge) a violation of Article 19(1) TEU in combination with Article 47 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights by Poland to the extent that the Minister of Justice has been given a discretionary power to prolong the mandate of judges which have reached retirement age (a similar combination was raised in the first stage of an infringement action against Hungary in December 2015 with regard to immigration issues but this language was dropped by the time it got to the Court of Justice).

Should the Polish authorities finally decide to implement the Commission’s recommendations within three months, the Commission has indicated its readiness to ‘reconsider’ its Article 7(1) proposal (para 50 of the Commission’s fourth rule of law recommendation).

The intensity and repeated nature of Poland’s ruling party attacks on the most basic tenets of the rule of law are unprecedentedly aggressive and in obvious breach of the Polish Constitution, which in our view warrants the Commission’s action (this is not to say that Article 7(1) should not also be activated against Hungary as two of the present authors previously argued in this 2016 article). Indeed, as rightly noted by the Commission, the Polish authorities have adopted over a period of two years no less ‘than 13 laws affecting the entire structure of the justice system in Poland, impacting the Constitutional Tribunal, Supreme Court, ordinary courts, National Council for the Judiciary, prosecution service and National School of Judiciary’. It was time therefore for the Commission to defend the independence of Member State judiciaries and the rule of law (as nicely put by Maximilian Steinbeis, ‘polish courts are our courts’, that is, ‘if the legal system in a Member State is broken, the legal system in the whole of the EU is broken’).

The media have so far only almost exclusively focused on the first ever invocation of what is often described as the EU’s ‘nuclear option’, which, however, as correctly pointed out by Frans Timmermans in his press conference announcing the Commission’s actions, is a misnomer (as we previously argued here). To put it briefly, Article 7 TEU provides for two main mechanisms: a preventive one in case of a ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ of the values common to the EU and its Member States and a sanctioning one where ‘a serious and persistent breach’ of the same values has materialised (for more detailed commentaries on the mechanics of Article 7 see here and here).

The Commission merely initiated the preventive mechanism on Wednesday when one could however reasonably argue that we are already way beyond the stage of a ‘clear risk’ and entered ‘serious and persistent breach’ territory following the capture of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal in obvious breach both of the Polish Constitution and the Commission’s first and second rule of law recommendations (see Pech and Scheppele, January 2017). Before however offering further details on the situation in Poland, however, it may be worth offering a brief overview of Article 7’s genesis.

2. Genesis of Article 7

On 9 May 1950, the venerable Schuman Declaration invited all the free European states to join the unification project, implying respect for the rule of law, a democratic system of government, and a market economy. The initial versions of the Treaties presumed compliance of the Member States with these principles, now reflected in Article 2 TEU. The enforcement of compliance was nevertheless strictly confined to the scope of the law of the EU via what are now Articles 258 and 259 TFEU, later reinforced by Article 260 TFEU, thus leaving compliance with the EU’s foundational values almost exclusively to the care of the constitutional systems of the Member States. The first shift towards a more active role to be played by the EU in this respect happened in 1978 when the Commission contemplated a proposal for a possible sanctions mechanism against the backdrop of the then upcoming Greek accession. A few years later, the European Parliament draft EU Treaty from 1984 contained such a mechanism for the first time. Later on, the EU began systematically including ‘human rights clauses’ in all association and cooperation (‘Europe-’) agreements with the Central and Eastern European states and incorporated these into the fabric of the pre-accession political conditionality in the areas of democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

In anticipation of the forthcoming accession of numerous countries to the EU, the Treaty of Amsterdam included the first version of Article 7 which only provided then for possible sanctions in a situation of ‘serious and persistent breach’. With the Nice Treaty, Article 7 TEU was revised to further enable the EU to adopt preventive sanctions in the situation where there is ‘a clear risk of a serious breach’ of the EU values by a Member State. This change was made to enable the EU to step in in a situation similar to the one in Austria following the formation of a governmental coalition involving Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom party. Before the Nice amendment, EU’s involvement with Austria took the form of a series of illegal ad hoc ‘bilateral sanctions’ imposed on Austria by 14 other Member States acting, strictly speaking, outside of the framework of EU law. These diplomatic sanctions were ended when the report issued by a “wise men” committee, which was set up to investigate the political and human rights situation in Austria, concluded that Austria’s record and commitment to common European values, including the rights of minorities, refugees and immigrants, was at the time of the report satisfactory: the illegal sanctions triggered by the election result would thus clearly not be justified under the amended Article 7 either. One might note in this respect how times have changed when the Freedom Party’s inclusion in a coalition government in Austria last week passed almost totally unremarked this time. It is wise however for the EU not to overreact to election results to instead react to actual breaches of the values common to the EU and its Member States.

In the light of this episode and other factors explored in this blog post published in January 2015, the European Commission thought it useful to adopt a pre-Article 7 procedure in 2014 to address systemic threats to the rule of law in any of the EU’s 28 Member States in response to the EU-28 governments’ express request in 2013 that the Commission should ‘take forward the debate in line with the Treaties on the possible need for and shape of a collaborative and systematic method to tackle’ rule of law backsliding (this is why it beggars belief that some EU national governments are now complaining that the Commission is finally taking this existential issue seriously).

The new pre-Article 7 procedure was activated for the very first time in January 2016 following the non-respect by Polish authorities of crucially important rulings of the Polish Constitutional Court and the adoption of new rules with respect to Public Service Broadcasters. As we predicted in this January 2015 post, any soft dialogue with authorities bent on undermining if not completely dismantling all checks and balances was bound to fail, and this is indeed what has happened with respect to Poland. It was also bound to create more space within which the determined autocrats in the Polish governing party would have more time to consolidate their unchecked power in relative peace. Be that as it may, having at last accepted the totally fruitless nature of the so-called constructive dialogue with Polish authorities, the European Commission finally decided, ‘with a heavy heart’, to activate Article 7(1).

3. Is the Commission’s decision to initiate Article 7 justified?

First, we agree fully with Frans Timmermans when he said earlier this week that the ‘common pattern’ of all the legislative changes targeting the judiciary in Poland ‘is that the executive or legislative powers are now set up in such a way that the ruling majority can systematically, politically interfere with the composition, the powers, the administration and the functioning of these authorities, thereby rendering the independence of the judiciary completely moot.’ We also share the view recently expressed by Vĕra Jourová and according to which ‘if one national system of judiciary is broken, the EU system is broken’.

A full account of the measures taken to remove checks and balances would take more space than we have here, so we can only but give a flavour of the so-called ‘reforms’ devised by Poland’s ruling party and which have been repetitively and publicly criticised (a point which the Polish government tends to conveniently forget). It is not just the European Commission that has repeatedly criticised the Polish reforms, but also the European Parliament, key bodies of the Council of Europe such as the Venice Commission, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights as well as representatives of the judiciary across Europe, including the Network of Presidents of the Supreme Judicial Courts of the European Union and the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary. Numerous civil society organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also expressed concerns and tens of thousands of Poles have taken to the street to protest the attacks on their own judiciary.

In light of yesterday’s visit to Poland by the British Prime Minister and her failure to publicly and unambiguously criticise the country’s ongoing descent into authoritarianism  (when asked about the Commission’s activation of Article 7(1) Theresa May said: ‘These constitutional issues are normally, and should be primarily a matter for the individual country concerned’), it is may also be worth recalling that a number of UK bodies have also expressed their strong concerns regarding the situation in Poland. For instance, last July, the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales called on ‘the Polish President, government and parliament to reject these draft laws and to withdraw and repeal all the measures which pose such a grave threat to judicial independence and the rule of law in Poland’. Previously, the body which represents independent judges in England and Wales expressed issued a press release to make clear its concerns ‘about the reported situation in Poland and any impact on judicial independence’.

Last but not least, let us not forget the recent and significant intervention of the Court of Justice in the Białowieża Forest infringement case in the context of which the Court decided that Poland should be subject to a penalty payment of at least €100,000 per day should it be found to have violated the Court’s order. They did so because Polish authorities’ declared that they would ignore a previous order adopted by the Vice-President of the Court to that effect. This was another factor which led the European Parliament to adopt a resolution on 15 November 2017 in which the Parliament describes the current rule of law situation in Poland as representing ‘a clear risk of a serious breach of the values referred to in Article 2 of the TEU’ and in which the Parliament also rightly deplored ‘the Polish Government’s refusal to implement the order of the Court of Justice of the EU on logging in the Białowieża forest’.

The European Commission therefore is hardly alone in its criticism of the Polish ruling party’s repeated attacks on the rule of law notwithstanding the Polish government’s ridiculous claim repeated ad nauseam that these attacks are politically motivated.

Three examples may also suffice to demonstrate that what the Polish ruling party calls ‘reforms’ are nothing but a set of unconstitutional and autocratic changes which aim to completely subjugate the judiciary to the will of the ruling party under the guise of the ‘will of the people’, no matter how plainly incompatible these changes are with both the Polish Constitution and Poland’s international obligations.

Frans Timmermans was entirely correct to point out that the constitutionality of legislation in Poland is longer guaranteed following the successful but unconstitutional capture of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal via the unlawful appointment of ideologically compatible ‘judges’ and the rushed installation, specifically in violation of a request from the Commission, of a new president of the Polish Constitutional Court in December 2016 (for further analysis see the 2017 posts by Pech and Scheppele: Part I; Part II; Part III). The situation is now so out of control that crucial rulings of the Constitutional Court that were made before it was captured ‘have been removed from the register of the Tribunal which is accessible from its website’ while ‘other judgements which were not yet published at the time of the adoption of the Recommendation of 21 December 2016 have by contrast been published on 29 December 2016 in the Journal of Laws’ (see para 5 of Commission Recommendation 2017/1520 of 26 July 2017). We are here in Orwellian and unprecedented territory for a country belonging to the EU and space precludes any analysis of the also unprecedented use (again to the best of our knowledge) of criminal law provisions designed to protect State institutions by the unlawfully appointed President of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal to silence her critics (see analysis here).

Secondly, Polish authorities never shy away from describing their ongoing destruction of the Polish judiciary as being in line with European standards or, failing that, as a pure matter of national sovereignty: two ludicrous points as explained