Europe’s big win on independent courts

Poland relents on a plan to alter its Supreme Court, a result of the EU standing up for its great unifier: democratic rule of law.

The European Union and Polish flags flutter in Mazeikiai, Lithuania.

Last June, the decadeslong project to bind European countries under democratic principles seemed to be fraying. Britain had left the European Union. A poll found most Europeans believe the EU to be “broken.” And the union’s new president, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, warned against the EU imposing “imaginary” values.

On Aug. 7, however, the EU’s core values were shown not to be so imaginary – but in fact, to be universal. Poland’s de facto leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, backed down in a tense clash with the EU over his attempt to purge the country’s Supreme Court. He promised to change Poland’s system of disciplining judges in a way that the courts would be independent of the executive branch.

For the EU, the standoff with Warsaw that began in 2017 was a challenge to its very identity. With no military power to enforce its decisions and no ability to kick out errant member states, the EU has long relied on democratic rule of law for its authority. At the center of such principles is the ideal of impartial judges, free of political influence. Mr. Kaczyński also seemed to accept that EU courts have primacy over the law of member states, a point Poland accepted when it joined the union in 2004.

Polish leaders have relented in large part because the EU’s administrative arm, the European Commission, has lately tried to act tougher against states that violate EU principles. This year, it threatened to withhold funds from Poland, wielding a financial stick for the first time. Meanwhile, the EU’s top court demanded that Poland suspend its attempt to put political pressure on judges.

Polish voters may also be shifting their support away from the ruling coalition, which includes Mr. Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party. The main opposition party, Civic Platform, headed by former European Council President Donald Tusk, has gained in popularity.

The EU has long found its unity in free trade between member states. But trade relies on fair courts that can act independently and uphold equality before the law. In democracies – even the nation states bound together in the EU – such liberal values remain a stronger unifier. There’s nothing imaginary about that.

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