In a stinging rebuke to Europe's unelected bureaucrats, and a major escalation in the rule of law crisis between Warsaw and Brussels, Poland's constitutional court ruled on Thursday that Polish law can take precedence over EU law amid an ongoing dispute between the European bloc and the eastern European member state. The decision by the Constitutional Tribunal came after Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki requested a review of a decision by the EU's Court of Justice (ECJ) that gave the bloc's law primacy. Two out of 14 judges on the panel dissented from the majority opinion.
"The attempt by the European Court of Justice to involve itself with Polish legal mechanisms violates ... the rules that give priority to the constitution and rules that respect sovereignty amid the process of European integration," the ruling said, in an outcome that could have wide-reaching consequences for Europe when the next crisis hits.
Meanwhile, Brussels considers the Constitutional Tribunal illegitimate due to the political influence imposed upon Poland's judiciary by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).
As the FT's Henry Foy notes, it is "Hard to overstate the importance of this ruling." He goes on to note that "Poland is *the* EU success story of eastern enlargement, and the biggest recipient - by a long long way - of EU taxpayer money since 2004. And now it is saying that it refuses to recognize a fundamental part of the whole project."
Hard to overstate the importance of this ruling.— Henry Foy (@HenryJFoy) October 7, 2021
Poland is *the* EU success story of eastern enlargement, and the biggest recipient - by a long long way - of EU taxpayer money since 2004.
And now it is saying that it refuses to recognise a fundamental part of the whole project. https://t.co/79nHpqpI1w
As DW reports, the court had looked specifically at the compatibility of provisions from EU treaties, which are used by the European Commission to justify having a say in the rule of law in member states, with Poland's constitution.
A ruling by the ECJ in March said that the EU can force member states to disregard certain provisions in national law, including constitutional law. The ECJ says that Poland's recently implemented procedure for appointing members of its Supreme Court amounts to a violation of EU law. The ruling from the ECJ could potentially force Poland to repeal parts of the controversial judicial reform.
Meanwhile, the EU is withholding billions of euros of aid for post-pandemic rebuilding in Poland over concerns that the rule of law is being degraded in the country.
"The primacy of constitutional law over other sources of law results directly from the Constitution of the Republic of Poland," PiS government spokesman Piotr Muller wrote on Twitter after the court's decision. "Today (once again) this has been clearly confirmed by the Constitutional Tribunal."
Dzisiejszy wyrok TK w zasadniczej części uwzględnia wniosek premiera @MorawieckiM. Nadrzędność prawa konstytucyjnego nad innymi źródłami prawa wynika literalnie z Konstytucji RP. Dzisiaj (po raz kolejny) wyraźnie potwierdził to Trybunał Konstytucyjny.— Piotr Müller (@PiotrMuller) October 7, 2021
However, the EPP group, the center-right bloc in the European Parliament to which PiS belongs, come out strongly against the court's ruling: "It’s hard to believe the Polish authorities and the PiS Party when they claim that they don’t want to put an end to Poland’s membership of the EU. Their actions go in the opposite direction. Enough is enough," Jeroen Lenaers, MEP and spokesperson for the group, said. "The Polish Government has lost its credibility. This is an attack on the EU as a whole," he added.
Previously, the European Parliament called on Morawiecki to cancel the court case in a resolution passed last month. It stressed the "fundamental nature of primacy of EU law as a cornerstone principle of EU law", which however now is put in doubt.
As DW notes, the judiciary reforms by the PiS government have been seen as a threat to Poland's membership within the 27-member bloc as well as to the stability of the EU as a whole.
That said, the court's decision on Thursday came as little surprise. The presiding judge, Julia Przylebska, is a government loyalist who was appointed by the ruling party. Similar to the highly partial US Supreme Court justices who are anything but impartial themselves.
Jack Parrock, DW's correspondent in Brussels, highlighted the importance the decision could have on Poland's role in the EU.
"One of the cornerstones of EU membership is that EU law has primacy over all other laws and that the European Court of Justice is the top court within the European Union and what these judges are saying is that in some aspects they don't believe that that is the case," he told DW.
"This all started because the European Court of Justice essentially ruled that certain aspects of judicial tampering that the government was doing in Poland's judiciary were not in line with EU law," Parrock explained.
"This has been an ongoing saga, and this is a pretty major issue now for the EU. We've already seen some pretty strong reactions coming from European parliamentarians and I'm sure we're going to see some harsh criticism of this ruling coming from the European Commission," he added.
Needless to say, the EU was not happy, and promptly escalated the war of words tweeting that "The Commission will not hesitate to make use of its powers under the Treaties to safeguard the uniform application & integrity of Union law."
Snap reaction from @EU_Commission:— Yannis Koutsomitis (@YanniKouts) October 7, 2021
"We will analyse the ruling ... in detail and we will decide on the next steps. The Commission will not hesitate to make use of its powers under the Treaties to safeguard the uniform application & integrity of Union law.https://t.co/UvVflwMLRN