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Official says EU likely to give Poland unprecedented warning

December 15, 2017

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, arrives for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. European Union leaders are gathering in Brussels and are set to move Brexit talks into a new phase as pressure mounts on Prime Minister Theresa May over her plans to take Britain out of the 28-nation bloc. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s executive Commission will likely decide next week to trigger an unprecedented procedure against Poland that could move the country closer to losing its voting rights in the EU, a top official said Friday.

The move would involve a formal warning to Poland that it sees a “clear risk of a serious breach” of European values in new bills that overhaul the judicial system.

The leaders of Germany and France said they would back the Commission if it decides to take this step, though they still held out some hope of finding some agreement with the Polish government.

EU budget commissioner Guenther Oettinger told Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio Friday: “Whether we will take this step, my colleagues and I will have to decide next Wednesday.”

But “a lot speaks” for it happening, in what would be a first for the bloc, he added. “I suspect that we will be prepared on Wednesday to initiate this step.”

Poland’s new Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki tried to persuade leaders at an EU summit in Brussels ending Friday that the bills do not violate democratic values.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron voiced hopes that the step won’t be necessary, but vowed to back the Commission if it comes to that.

“I still hope that perhaps talks can be held with the new prime minister that make such a procedure unnecessary, but it is also clear that we have clear principles on the rule of law, and if the Commission feels it necessary Germany will also support this procedure, of course,” Merkel said at a news conference in Brussels.

“Poland is an important partner in the European Union, and the better our cooperation is the better it is for the whole of Europe,” Merkel said.

The procedure being considered includes two steps. A first step involves warning a member state that it is in breach of fundamental values. It requires a qualified majority by member states and could likely pass.

A second step — stripping a state of its voting rights in the European Council — could theoretically follow, but it requires unanimity and the Hungarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has vowed to block punitive action against Poland.

Polish lawmakers passed two new laws last week regulating the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary, a body that appoints judges, giving the ruling party control over both institutions. Critics believe the laws, together with laws previously passed, destroy the independence of the judicial branch by putting it under political control of the ruling party.

The bills still await the approval of the Senate, a step that could come Friday, followed by that of the president.

Opponents held protests Thursday evening in some Polish cities in last-ditch hopes of blocking them, though that prospect seemed unlikely.

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Moulson reported from Berlin. Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.

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