Europe fortifies the independence of judges

 The European Union’s highest legal body put Poland on notice to uphold rule of law. The ruling also counters Russia’s claim that liberal values are history.

Poland's Supreme Court building in Warsaw.

In a comment Thursday about the drift toward authoritarian populism in Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin said liberal democracy has become “obsolete.” He implied that values such as individual rights had “outlived their purpose.”

Not so, responded European Union leaders. What began seven decades ago as a community of trading nations has since become a community of 28 countries integrated by transnational law. To make the point, they cited a June 24 decision by the European Court of Justice.

The EU’s highest legal body ruled that Poland’s populist government had acted illegally by forcing a third of the country’s Supreme Court judges into early retirement, thus violating the principle of the irremovability of judges. The move by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party was widely seen as a power grab to end judicial independence and stack the benches with loyalists. It is part of a broader crackdown since 2016 on media and anything else that might challenge the party.

The EU’s first disciplinary action against a member state sends a strong message to others in the bloc inclined to step on democratic values. In addition, it is a reminder that national courts are required to implement EU law. The ruling also sends a signal to seven countries on the edges of Europe that are candidates to join.

Poland could now face punitive measures, such as a cutoff of EU funding or an end to its voting rights in European bodies. Even before the ruling, Polish leaders had put on hold their scheme to retire the judges.

Rule of law requires the independence of judges. It is the basis for ensuring individual freedoms and equality before the law. Polls show two-thirds of Europeans have positive feelings toward the EU. In Poland, such support is very high.

While the bloc’s popularity may be based on its economic opportunities and the freedom to travel, it is rule of law that holds it all together. Contrary to Mr. Putin’s view, liberal values are not becoming obsolete.

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