Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal (TK) has ruled that fines issued against the country by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) were unconstitutional.
It is now the third time that the TK – a body widely seen as being under the influence of the outgoing ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party – has found parts of EU treaties to be incompatible with the Polish constitution.
Those rulings have deepened the standoff between Warsaw and Brussels over the rule of law. However, that situation is now set to ameliorate with PiS’s eight years in power ending this week and a new, more EU-friendly government led by Donald Tusk coming to power.
Here we go again. Polish Constitutional Tribunal unsurprisingly rules that financial penalties ordered by CJEU for not complying with CJEU interim orders are unconstitutional (case K 8/21). There are 4 dissenting opinions. pic.twitter.com/ED2C73PK3o
— Anna Wójcik (@annawojcik) December 11, 2023
Today’s ruling stemmed from a request made by Zbigniew Ziobro, the justice minister and public prosecutor general during PiS’s eight-year rule.
He argued that fines issued against Poland for failing to comply with two interim CJEU rulings – to suspend activity at the Turów coal mine and to suspend its disciplinary chamber for judges – were “illegal” and that “Poland should not pay a single zloty”.
In fact, Warsaw was forced to pay billions of zloty, with the European Commission levying the fines – the highest ever imposed on a member state – from Poland’s EU funds.
The EU has rejected a request from Poland to stop levying fines of €1m per day for Warsaw’s failure to implement a European court order.
The penalties have so far amounted to €526m (2.4 bn zloty) since being imposed in November 2021 https://t.co/vnHxeL9ZHu
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) April 13, 2023
The TK, which has repeatedly relayed its proceedings on this case, today finally ruled in Ziobro’s favour, finding that article 279 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and article 39 of the CJEU’s statute – which were used to justify the fines against Poland – are inconsistent with the Polish constitution.
One of the TK’s judges, Zbigniew Jędrzejewski, said that the CJEU’s rules on issuing interim measures are poorly defined and that Poland had not had influence on formulating them, reports Business Insider Polska.
“This could lead to a situation in which Poland could cease to function as a sovereign state,” added the judge, quoted by news website Onet.
The @EU_Commission has launched further legal action against Poland.
It says that two rulings by Poland’s constitutional court – which found parts of EU law to be inconsistent with the Polish constitution – „violated and challenged the primacy of EU law” https://t.co/DShAPKOBla
— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) February 15, 2023
However, Jędrzejewski emphasised that the TK was not questioning the CJEU’s general right to issue fines, only its right to implement so-called interim measures in the form of financial penalties, noted rule-of-law expert Anna Wójcik in a post on X.
“The basis for imposing penalties should be a judgment of the CJEU issued in the procedure specified in the treaty, and not a decision of the CJEU president or another judge,” said Jędrzejewski.
Michał Wójcik, who served until last month as Ziobro’s deputy justice minister, celebrated the TK’s ruling as a “great success” which shows that “Poland is not a pushover and has its own sovereignty and legal order”.
Wielki sukces @ZiobroPL . Trybunał Konstytucyjny orzekł, że nakładanie kar na Polskę i Polaków przez TSUE jest niezgodne z Konstytucją. Polska to nie jest żadne popychle, ma swoją suwerenność i swój porządek prawny. Brawo!
— Michał Wójcik🇵🇱 (@mwojcik_) December 11, 2023
However, a member of the incoming ruling coalition, Krzysztof Śmiszek – who is tipped to be a deputy justice minister – called the TK’s ruling “the final chord in PiS’s war against the EU”. He declared that “starting from tomorrow [with the formation of a new government] we will repair the rule of law”.
In his post, Śmiszek also referred to the “ruling” in inverted commas, reflecting the fact that, as one of its first acts in office, PiS appointed three judges to the TK in a manner deemed in later court rulings to have been unlawful.
Moreover, the opposition, many experts, and also a number of the TK’s own judges have argued that the term of the court’s current president, Julia Przyłębska – a close personal associate of PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński – legally expired last year.
TK Przyłębskiej wydał właśnie „wyrok” ws niezgodności prawa europejskiego z polską Konstytucją…
Ostatni akord w wojnie PiSu z UE.
Od jutra naprawiamy praworządność!
— Krzysztof Śmiszek (@K_Smiszek) December 11, 2023
In July 2021, the TK first found parts of the EU treaties to be unconstitutional, also in relation to an interim order issued by the CJEU against Poland. In October of the same year, it again ruled that parts of European law are inconsistent with the Polish constitution, which takes precedence over them.
In response to those judgements, the European Commission has launched legal proceedings against Poland for what it claims are “violations of EU law by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal”.
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Main image credit: Lukas Plewnia/Flickr (under CC BY-SA 2.0)
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, EUobserver and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.