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Poland hints at backing down in rule-of-law fight with Brussels

Polish President Andrzej Duda said he will submit a bill to do away with a special Supreme Court disciplinary chamber that is at the heart of a bruising fight between Warsaw and the European Union over judicial independence.

(CN) — After months of an escalating fight between Poland and the European Union over the rule of law, Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday said he will file a bill to do away with a controversial disciplinary chamber his government set up in the Polish Supreme Court.

Duda's announcement can be seen as a step by Poland to admitting defeat in a major battle between Warsaw and Brussels over who has the ultimate power to dictate the law. Warsaw has refused to abide by EU court rulings, a stance that Brussels has declared is illegal and endangering the bloc's legal foundations.

Last year Poland was slapped with a daily fine of 1 million euros (about $1.1 million) for refusing to abide by European Court of Justice rulings that found its newly created disciplinary chamber in the Polish Supreme Court an unlawful instrument to punish judges that the ruling party doesn't like. Poland has refused to pay the fines.

The special chamber was one of several judicial changes instituted by the ruling ultraconservative Law and Justice party after it seized power in 2015.

The Law and Justice party claimed its judicial reforms were needed to rid the courts of corrupt Soviet-era judges and make the judicial system more efficient. But critics, including the European Commission, accused Law and Justice of seeking to turn Poland into a one-party authoritarian state with courts packed by its allies. In 2017, the commission opened sanctions proceedings against Poland to defend the rule of law.

This legal battle climaxed in October when Poland's Constitutional Tribunal declared that Poland's constitution has primacy over EU law, a finding that sparked a crisis.

The EU has ramped up its threats against Poland and begun withholding millions of euros in EU funds as punishment for not abiding by Court of Justice rulings. The commission also is blocking Poland from receiving millions of euros in coronavirus pandemic recovery funds.

On Thursday, Duda said Poland needs to come in line with the EU's demands and get EU funds back on track.

“This draft should be a tool for the Polish government to end the dispute,” Duda said, as reported by PAP, a Polish news agency.

Pending action by Warsaw to bend to the EU court rulings, the European Commission has refused to approve Poland's pandemic recovery plan, which could see the country receiving 58.1 billion euros (about $66.2 billion) in grants and loans.

The prospects of Duda's proposed bill making it through the Polish parliament are uncertain due to dominance of the Law and Justice party, which has repeatedly refused to back down in its fight with the EU.

Marchin Warchol, a Polish deputy justice minister and member of parliament, quickly rejected Duda's proposal.

“His proposals concerning the Supreme Court do not solve anything and may contribute to deepening the chaos and anarchy,” Warchol said on Twitter.

Laurent Pech, an expert on Poland's judicial fight at the School of Law at Middlesex University London, derided Duda's proposed legislation.

“Duda is serial rule of law violator,” Pech said on Twitter. “This bill is just an attempt to get EU money via a bogus rebranding attempt while continuing to violate ECJ rulings.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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