Polish judicial reforms come under fire in Czech Republic

Anti-government protesters raise candles and placards reading 'Constitution', as they gather in front of the Supreme Court in Warsaw, Poland, July 23, 2017, photo: CTK

Judicial reforms in neighbouring Poland have come under fire in the Czech Republic, but the government in Prague has so far not expressed an official stance on developments in its Visegrad bloc neighbour and partner. But the Czech Republic could well be put on the spot thanks to its current presidency of the human rights body, the Council of Europe.

Anti-government protesters raise candles and placards reading 'Constitution',  as they gather in front of the Supreme Court in Warsaw,  Poland,  July 23,  2017,  photo: CTK
In spite of the protest on the streets of Warsaw and warnings from many parts of Europe, including the main European Union institutions, Poland’s parliament has pushed through a far reaching judicial reform which critics say risks bringing its judicial system under political control.

The upper house, the Senate, and lower house, both dominated by the Law and Justice Party, approved the judicial shake-up. Only the president, nominated by the same right-wing party, needs to sign the proposed law into effect.

Criticism from Czech quarters has not been lacking. A petition from the Czech Republic’s five highest judicial figures, including the head of the Constitutional Court, Pavel Rychetský, was released last Friday. It warned that steps are being taken which threaten the very basis of democratic and law abiding states. The judges warned that in spite of their respect for the country’s sovereignty they could not keep silent.

Czech Minister of Justice, Robert Pelikán, has also voiced his concerns about the Polish reforms of the judicial system, recently calling on his counterpart to think again about pushing them through.

And the Czech Republic’s European Commissioner, Věra Jourová, who is responsible for the justice dossier in Brussels, has also been outspoken. She warned last week that mechanisms could be put in place by the European Commission in the long term to punish states, such as Poland, which break basic EU principles.

ʺWe are talking about the future [EU] budget and I am convinced that there should be some sort of warning so that money from tax payers does not go where, for example, some sort of dictatorial regime is being created. That could mean, unfortunately, not just Poland but somewhere else. At the moment we are talking about a general principle.ʺ

Věra Jourová,  photo: Jana Trpišovská
Brussels can take the so-called nuclear option and withdraw a country’s voting rights in EU institutions but that requires unanimity and Hungary has so far said it will back the reforms taking place in Poland. Budapest has similar issues of its own. The Czech government has so far been silent.

The Czech Republic though currently chairs the Council of Europe, one of the continent’s main actors in the field of human rights and democracy. An independent judiciary free of political interference is one of the main planks of the democratic values which the council is continually monitoring and promoting. In fact, strengthening judicial independence is at the moment one of the council’s main goals and council members have criticized the Polish government judicial reforms as a move towards authoritarian rule.

In the Czech Republic itself, some commentators have questioned whether the country should still put the four nation Visegrad Group at the centre of its foreign policy when Poland and Hungary are seen taking steps distancing themselves from core EU values.