The European Union’s top court ordered Poland to suspend a purge of the country’s supreme court, escalating a battle over the rule of law that has split Europe between East and West.
The Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice said Friday that Poland must delay implementation of a law that came into force earlier this year requiring early retirement for nearly 40% of the court’s judges. Poland could face fines if it doesn’t comply, but more significantly such a move would represent an unprecedented threat to the authority of the bloc’s top court.
The Polish judges sent into retirement must be allowed to return to work, the ruling said. The law that dismissed them poses a “real risk of serious and irreparable damage” to the rights of Poles who come before the court, the ECJ said in its interim ruling. There could be legal confusion in Poland, it said, if multiple local and foreign courts have different views on which supreme court justices are legitimate.
The ruling is only temporary, and in coming months, the Luxembourg-based court will hear arguments from Poland’s government, which says it needs to lower the retirement age to remove the last Communist sympathizers from its judiciary. About eight of the court’s 110 seats are filled with judges who served under Communism.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, will also present arguments, saying that the changes violate Poland’s constitution and threaten the political independence of its court system.
That law has sparked recurrent protests in Poland’s major cities by demonstrators who feel the country’s nationalist-conservative ruling party is eroding the checks-and-balances of Polish democracy, and cementing political control over the judiciary.
The ministry is already seeking to rush dozens of new judges onto the court: An official job application, leaked to Polish media, runs for barely three pages of basic questions, regarding date-of-birth and citizenship.
The fight has become a flashpoint between Poland—the largest country in Europe’s increasingly nationalist-looking Eastern flank—and EU leaders, who worry that democratic values are under siege on the continent. Hungary and Romania have both passed controversial laws giving their countries’ ruling parties the power to fire judges or prosecutors.
A separate legal opinion on Friday from the Venice Commission, an international panel of constitutional judges, said recent changes to anticorruption laws in Romania “seriously weaken the effectiveness of its criminal justice system to fight corruption offenses, violent crimes and organized criminality.”
In Poland, it wasn’t clear whether the government would obey the ECJ order. In a brief statement, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters the government would analyze the ruling before responding. The country’s justice ministry didn’t immediately respond to questions.
“That’s a problem,” said Marcin Matczak, professor of legal theory at the University of Warsaw. “If they accept the decision by the ECJ, their electorate, which is anti-EU, may find it unpleasant. On the other hand, they can’t ignore it because they have to appeal to the center who are pro-EU.”
Last year, Polish authorities initially resisted an interim decision by the court to impose a ban on logging in a U.N.-protected forest. They finally obeyed the order when the court ruled definitively earlier this year that logging there was in breach of EU laws.