The closer Britain gets to leaving the European Union, the more people in other member states seem to remember why the EU exists. The latest example: Poland’s governing party reversed itself last week and agreed to honor a core EU principle of judicial independence. It will now allow two dozen Supreme Court judges to return to work after forcing them into early retirement this year.
The right-wing Law and Justice party had sought to control the courts by simply dismissing judges at will, seeing rule of law as expendable in a democracy. It chafed under EU rules about the need for constitutional constraints on the power of majority. Yet both the EU and many Poles stood up for the democratic values that bind the bloc and have helped keep peace in postwar Europe.
Last year, the EU threatened to strip Poland of its voting rights. The European Court of Justice, meanwhile, deemed the action illegal. And in local elections in October, Polish voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the ruling party. The electoral setback worried leaders that they might lose parliamentary polls due next year. The party also suffered from a corruption scandal.
Within Europe, support for the EU is highest in Poland – more than 80 percent. The country is also the biggest beneficiary of EU funds. Since joining the Union in 2004, however, Poland has also joined a few other Eastern European nations in drifting toward illiberal populism. The crisis over the courts has forced it to revisit reasons for staying in the EU.
The victory for Brussels shows it still commands the moral authority to corral member states into following the EU’s fundamental values. Central to those values is the implied equality before the law and the supremacy of law to democratic rule. Courts serve a vital role as a check on power, mooring rule of law on constitutional principles. Poland, which suffered so much at the hands of countries that violated those principles, should recognize its strength to preserve a society.