WARSAW — Poland’s president signed sweeping legislation on Wednesday to overhaul the country’s judicial system, a move critics say fundamentally undermines the rule of law in a nation that only three decades ago broke free from the yoke of the Soviet Union to embrace democracy.
The new laws effectively put the Polish courts under the control of the right-wing governing party, Law and Justice. In signing them, President Andrzej Duda defied a formal warning delivered only hours earlier by the European Union, which called the legislation a “serious breach” of bedrock values like the rule of law.
Once viewed as a symbol for the successful integration of former Eastern Bloc countries into the West, Poland is now seen as portending a far darker trend — a turn toward right-wing populism and away from values like pluralism and respect for dissent.
The turn has underscored an emerging rift on the Continent between countries in the West like France and Germany, where the political establishment has rallied around core democratic values, and countries in the East like Poland and Hungary, where populist leaders have succeeded by appealing to the old gods of nation, faith and family.
“If you had asked me two years ago if Poland would have found itself at this moment, I would have said no way,” said Michal Baranowski, who directs the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a pro-European research organization dedicated to trans-Atlantic values. “I think it comes to the surprise of many, not only in Poland but throughout the West.”
Charles A. Kupchan, an adviser on European affairs during the Obama administration, said the new laws were “yet another sign of the rising tide of illiberalism that has taken hold in Central Europe.” He called the changes “inconsistent with democratic norms and values.”
The court overhaul poses yet another headache for the European Union. Its leaders are already grappling with Britain’s plans to exit the bloc, a separatist movement in Spain and disagreement over how to address the migration of immigrants into Europe. And all this is taking place against the backdrop of political uncertainty in Germany, the most influential member of the European Union.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, remarked on Twitter that it was “a difficult day” not just for Poland but for the whole bloc. He said he had invited the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, to Brussels for talks.
The commission’s warning will also be seen as a clear signal to other countries in the region — including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia — that to varying degrees have seen voters embrace populism.
The signing of the law is unlikely to lead to any immediate punishment for Poland — like a suspension of its voting rights. For the bloc to issue such a sanction, the 27 other member states would have to agree. Hungary, which has clashed with Brussels over laws cracking down on nonprofit groups, the press and the judiciary, has vowed to veto any such effort.
In a speech to the nation on Wednesday evening, Mr. Duda rebuffed critics, arguing — with merit, even critics acknowledge — that the judiciary in Poland has long been seen as sluggish and removed.
“This view that it’s an abuse of democratic standards is unfounded,” Mr. Duda insisted. “It’s the opposite. What is happening is a deepening of democracy. The judges will no longer rule themselves. They aren’t some extraordinary caste; they are servants of the Polish people.”
Jaroslaw Flis, a political analyst and sociologist at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, said the standoff between the Polish government and the European Union was becoming increasingly dangerous.
“It’s a classic game of chicken,” he said. “Everyone seems to be playing tough guy. The ruling party seems convinced that the E.U. has enough problems to see this through and that they will eventually back down, but it’s a very risky strategy. It could turn into a real mess.”
The Trump administration has shown little appetite for intervening in the debate in Europe over democracy’s future. When President Trump visited Poland in July, controversy about the judicial overhaul was swirling and his speech was widely interpreted as emboldening the government.
Since the fall of Communism in 1989, Poland has been seen as a success story among former Eastern bloc nations, but that progress is now considered to be under threat.
The dispute between Poland and other members of the European Union has been building for more than two years, since the populist Law and Justice party swept into power promising to rid Poland of corruption and the remnants of communism.
The party has curbed public gatherings, increased control over the news media, undermined the independence of the Civil Service and the prosecutor’s office, and restricted the activities of nongovernmental organizations.
An earlier attempt to overhaul the judiciary failed over the summer after tens of thousands took to the streets night after night to voice their opposition, many waving gray flags emblazoned with a single word: “konstytucja,” or “Constitution.”
The legislation prompted the European Union’s first investigation into a member country’s respect for the rule of law, and under pressure from the protesters and world leaders, Mr. Duda defied his own political camp and unexpectedly vetoed the bills.
Later, however, he huddled with the party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a fierce ideologue who controls most of the levers of power in Poland, about ways to rewrite the legislation to make it more palatable.
Originally, the plan was to get rid of the entire Supreme Court, but the revised legislation lowers the retirement age for the court’s judges to 65 from 70. That would effectively force out a little less than half of the roughly 80 active justices, including the court’s president, Malgorzata Gersdorf, who has been a vocal critic of the government’s actions.
The new laws will also change the way judges are selected, giving more control to the lower house of Parliament, which is controlled by Law and Justice. (The party does not control the upper house.)
The Venice Commission, a panel of constitutional law experts that advises the Council of Europe, a rights group, warned that letting lawmakers replace current members of the National Judiciary Council, which appoints judges, “will lead to a far-reaching politicization of this body.”
The overhaul of the courts is one of a series of contentious moves by the Law and Justice party. Last week, the government adopted widely contested changes to the country’s electoral and local government laws. The new rules change the way in which members of the national election commission, which oversees voting, are selected.
The judiciary changes could also affect elections because, in addition to serving as the highest court of appeal for all civilian and criminal cases, the Supreme Court is responsible for validating voting.
In Brussels, the executive arm of the European Union invoked Article 7 of the bloc’s founding treaty. The treaty includes provisions intended to ensure that the 28 member countries maintain “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights.”
Vladimir Bartovic, director of the Europeum Institute for European Policy, a Prague-based group that focuses on Central and Eastern Europe, said the warning from the European Commission is “a very serious thing, the first time in the history of the E.U. that this procedure will be officially started.”
But the commission’s move was not without risks of its own. It could embolden Mr. Kaczynski and draw more support for his cause if people believe Poland is being unfairly targeted by what many view as distant elites in Brussels.
The Polish minister of foreign affairs, Witold Waszczykowski, expressed anger even before the commission’s vote, saying the decision was “an attempt to stigmatize Poland and push us aside when key decisions are made in the E.U.”
Joanna Kopcinska, a spokeswoman for the Polish government, said, “Poland is a democratic and sovereign state, and there is nothing bad going on here.”
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