Protesters against the supreme court changes in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw. Kacper Pempel-Reuters
Reuters

The European Commission formally launched infringement proceedings against Poland one day ahead of the implementation of a controversial reform that would force out about 40 percent of sitting judges at its highest court.

On Tuesday, Poland will reduce the mandatory retirement age of Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65, which applies to 27 of 72 judges, including the first president of the court, prematurely ending a six-year term.

International organisations and activists have accused the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) of using the reform as a way of controlling what for three decades has been an independent judiciary system.

“The Commission is of the opinion that these measures undermine the principle of judicial independence, including the irremovability of judges, and thereby Poland fails to fulfil its obligations under Article 19(1) of the Treaty on European Union,” the European Commission wrote in a statement on Monday.

In December, the commission took the unprecedented step of invoking Article 7 in an attempt to determine whether Poland had breached the rule of law and last week government officials sat through a three-hour hearing in front of the General Affairs Council.

“Given the lack of progress through the rule of law dialogue, and the imminent implementation of the new retirement regime for Supreme Court judges, the Commission decided to launch this infringement procedure as a matter of urgency,” the statement continues.

The Polish government will have one month to reply to the notice, it said. The matter could then wind up in the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court.

“As a member of the European Union, the European tribunal is also our court, especially at a time when PiS is threatening our system, so the European tribunal is the only independent institution left that may assess the Supreme Court laws in an honest way,” said Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a member of parliament for the opposition Modern party.

The passage of the Supreme Court law on Tuesday is only the most recent in a string of attacks on the Polish judiciary since PiS took power in 2015.

The nationalist government has already decimated the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal, fast-tracked appointments of party-affiliated judges and used state funds smear judges on billboards.

Countrywide protests

Under the reform, many worry that the government will have control over an institution in the Supreme Court that has the power to validate future elections as well as reach into the past to overturn any decisions they do not agree with.

“It isn’t an accident that the chamber to which there is a need to appoint new judges under the reform is exactly the chamber that is takes on the constitutionality of the Polish elections,” Gasiuk-Pihowicz said.

With the new law set to come into force, Poland has experienced building countrywide protests over the past few days with thousands of people expected to gather this evening in front of the Supreme Court in Warsaw on Monday evening.

They will be joined by another group of demonstrators who will be protesting against stringent new abortion laws currently being considered in Parliament.

While activists told Al Jazeera they are encouraged that the European Union is taking a proactive stance on the case, they will follow through with further measures.

“We hope that European Commission will also request interim measures in the form of a suspension of the application of the legislation on the Supreme Court until the case has been adjudicated by the Court of Justice,” said Maia Mazurkiewicz, a communications manager, European Front, a coalition of pro-European NGOs, part of organisers for the protests.

“We know that it is just a beginning, but we hope that it will stop politicisation of the Polish Supreme Court.”

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