The debate in Brussels was chaired by First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, centred around whether to invoke the EU’s Article 7 against Poland – which would limit Poland’s voting rights, as well as curb Union funding to Warsaw.
Timmermans expressed concern that the rule of law in Poland is reportedly being infringed by the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party.
However, he argued against introducing a precedent within the European Union and invoking sanctions against a member country. “At this stage, I'd like us to tread carefully to see to what extent the member states are willing us to move in this debate. The triggering of Article 7 will not help us in the wider context,” he said.
“In every country, there are problems with the rule of law. No country is above the law. But it is never an excuse that someone else is doing the same,” Timmermans said, adding that the changes to the judiciary in Poland, particularly the recent appointments to the Constitutional Tribunal, are among the issues which raise concern within the European Commission in the context of Poland's rule of law procedure.
Several MEPs debated the issue, including PiS MEP Zbigniew Kuźmiuk, who said that the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland “is working well and is pluralistic”.
Addressing Timmermans, conservative MEP Marek Jurek said: “The actions you are taking have no legal basis.”
Meanwhile, Jacek Saryusz Wolski, a former MEP for the European People's Party, and PiS candidate to head the European Council, tweeted: “[In] Accusing Poland, [the] European Commission mistakenly takes the overdue elimination of relics of communist past for imaginary threat to democracy.”
Some deputies were in favour of imposing the sanctions.
Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld said that she will support the implementation of Article 7, adding that the “Tribunal is not the only problem”.
Michał Boni, an EPP MEP, said that if the sanctions were to be introduced, Polish people could be deprived of some of what they have obtained since the fall of the Iron Curtain. “Many Poles do not want to lose what they have gained after 1989,” he said.
The treaties should not be seen as a punishment for Poland, said EPP MEP Roberta Metsola. “The pillars of democracy that our parents’ generation fought for must be something our children’s generation can take for granted,” she said, “Let’s be clear: this is not about somehow punishing Poland, it is about standing up for Polish people”.
In January last year, the Commission, the EU’s executive arm, announced it was starting a "rule-of-law" probe into whether laws pushed through by Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party violate EU standards. PiS has fiercely rejected such accusations.
The probe by the European Commission could in theory lead to Brussels imposing penalties on Warsaw, but any such move would have to be backed unanimously by EU member states. Hungary has said it would not support sanctions.
Critics have accused the governing Law and Justice party of aiming to stack the Constitutional Tribunal with PiS supporters, undermining its ability to challenge new laws.
Law and Justice argued it was unfair that a constitutional court with a majority of judges appointed under the previous parliament should be able to scupper flagship policies for which PiS secured a mandate in democratic elections in late 2015.