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Polish president vetoes judiciary laws amid EU, public outcry

July 24, 2017 Updated Mon., July 24, 2017 at 1:59 p.m.

People shout slogans in front of the presidential palace Warsaw, Poland, Monday, July 24, 2017. Polish President Andrzej Duda announced that he will veto two contentious bills widely seen as assaults on the independence of the judicial system. (Alik Keplicz / Associated Press)
People shout slogans in front of the presidential palace Warsaw, Poland, Monday, July 24, 2017. Polish President Andrzej Duda announced that he will veto two contentious bills widely seen as assaults on the independence of the judicial system. (Alik Keplicz / Associated Press)
By Piotr Bujnicki, Dorota Bartyzel and Adrian Krajewski Bloomberg

Poland’s president vetoed part of a judicial overhaul that’s triggered one of the country’s deepest political crises since the fall of communism and touched off debate in the European Union over how to confront members that flout democratic values.

Dealing a blow to the ruling party that backed his presidency, Andrzej Duda struck down bills that would have replaced Poland’s Supreme Court judges and revamped the Judicial Council, which makes key personnel decisions. His decision followed eight-days of nationwide protests by tens of thousands of Poles in defense of court independence and an EU threat of sanctions against the bloc’s largest beneficiary of development funds. The zloty rebounded after its worst day of 2017 on Friday.

“Poland’s legal system does need a thorough reorganization, but above all it needs to provide a sense of security,” Duda said Monday in televised comments. “And no change of the legal system should open a divide between society and the state.”

The partial veto erects an obstacle for the ruling Law & Justice party, which since taking power in 2015 has pushed through laws that have challenged the EU’s democratic principles and sparked warnings about a drift toward authoritarian rule. Criticism has flowed from fellow states in the 28-member bloc and the U.S. State Department. On Saturday, Sen. John McCain called the court revamp “one step back for democracy.”

“Duda’s veto surely offers a breather, but it depends a lot on whether the ruling party will continue with the attempts to control the judiciary or whether they’ll back down,” said Paul Ivan, a Brussels-based analyst at the European Policy Center. “The situation remains very unstable.”

The zloty snapped a four-day drop and bonds rallied. The Polish currency gained 0.6 percent against the euro having slumped 1.5 percent last week, the biggest losses since November.

The vetoes marked only a partial victory for the protesters. Duda told lawmakers to rewrite the two bills he rejected within two months and he said he’d approve a third giving the justice minister the right to nominate the heads of local courts, stripping that power from the court of appeal.

The European Commission is monitoring “the events and the situation in Poland very closely” and will address the matter on Wednesday, spokesman Margaritis Schinas said in Brussels following Duda’s announcement. “Things are changing even as we speak,” he said.

Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity movement that helped bring down communism more than a quarter of a century ago, welcomed the vetoes. But he called Duda’s approval of the law on lower courts “a bad decision” and urged Poles to continue protests.

“It was a difficult decision for President Duda,” Walesa told TVN24. “It’s reassuring that the nation is awakening. There is always time to improve things.”

Law & Justice legislator Jacek Sasin said he was disappointed by Monday’s development, which marks the biggest policy split to date between the ruling party and Duda.

“Yes, there were protests, but that’s how it is in a democratic country,” he told TVP Info. “There are also millions of those who voted for Law & Justice and the president, also because we flagged judicial reform. Today’s Polish judiciary has uncontrolled remnants of communism. The president’s decision means it will stay that way for some time longer.”

Duda said he spent the weekend consulting with lawyers and judges, as well as professors of law, philosophy and sociology in his decision, which he said he made to prevent Poland from being “disrupted by a political war.” He said one person he spoke to was former dissident Zofia Romaszewska.

“She said ‘I used to live in the state where the general prosecutor also had an unbelievably powerful position, and I do not want to live in such a country again,” Duda said.

The decision may also fend off pressure from the European Commission, which said last week it was near recommending Article 7, a procedure that could pave the way for Poland to lose its EU voting rights. Having been granted more than $285 billion from the EU since it joined in 2004, Poland is already subject to the EU’s first-ever inquiry into democratic behavior.

“The timing of the veto is no accident,” said Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University in Prague and a former adviser to late Czech President Vaclav Havel. “The European Commission was supposed to meet on Wednesday and activate Article 7, which is the toughest form of penalization for any member country.”

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