— The European Union
’s executive branch chastised Poland
on Wednesday after determining that it had failed to uphold the rule of law, a rare intervention that reflected increasing alarm in the West about the government’s commitment to democratic norms.
The adoption of the formal opinion by the executive branch, the European Commission, which could ultimately lead to sanctions, came after the commission opened an investigation in January into whether the right-wing government was subverting European Union values by threatening an independent judiciary.
After days of negotiations intended to find a compromise that could save Poland and the governing Law and Justice party from an embarrassing public rebuke, Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the commission, said the bloc had decided to adopt a formal opinion.
The opinion, the details of which were not disseminated, found that the government of Prime Minister Beata Szydlo had violated the principle of rule of law. It reflected the bloc’s concerns that Poland had, among other things, undermined the ability of the Polish constitutional court to rule on new legislation and appointed party loyalists to the judiciary, according to European Union officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Despite our best efforts, until now we have not been able to find solutions to the main issues at stake,” Mr. Timmermans said at a news conference in Brussels
on Wednesday. “Let me be clear that the commission does not intend and does not wish to involve itself in a political debate in Poland. Political issues in Poland are the business of politicians in Poland. Our business is preserving the rule of law.”
The country’s justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, was quoted by Radio Poland as saying that he was “surprised and saddened” by the commission’s opinion. At a news conference in Warsaw, he said that the government had been flexible, and he blamed the opposition and the constitutional court for failing to compromise.
The European Commission asked Poland to respond to the opinion “within a reasonable time.”
A failure to address the commission’s concerns could eventually result in sanctions and the loss of voting rights in the European Union’s council of ministers, where major policy decisions are approved.
Such an outcome is generally seen as unlikely, however, in part because Hungary
, under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has vowed to veto any attempt to impose sanctions on Poland.
The spectacle of the European Union criticizing one of its own members for failing to live up to the bloc’s standards comes as it has struggled to call to account member states that it fears have transgressed its democratic norms.
The struggle has been particularly pronounced in Hungary, where Mr. Orban’s government has defied the European Union by tightening its grip over the judiciary, the news media, the central bank and even culture.
After the European Union expanded to the east in 2004, there were hopes that membership would help countries from the former Communist bloc shed a legacy of authoritarianism.
But a recent resurgence of nationalism, euroskepticism and authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary has generated concerns that parts of the region are turning their backs on the liberalism of the post-Cold War era.
In March, Poland’s constitutional court rejected the government’s proposed alterations to the way the court operates, saying the changes were unconstitutional.
The government has refused to accept that ruling. It has also received criticism for exerting control over the state broadcasting system in what is seen by many as an attempt to silence opposition voices.
Also in March, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, a human rights group, sharply rebuked Poland for what it said were efforts to blunt the powers of the constitutional court. Thousands of Poles recently took to the streets to express their concern that the government was trampling on democracy and human freedoms.
European Union officials said on Wednesday that the Polish government had requested the opinion of the Venice Commission but had forged ahead with changes to the court before the opinion was issued and then ignored the findings.
Speaking on Monday, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the Law and Justice Party, threatened to appeal the opinion at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg
if it turned out to be critical of Poland.
Mr. Kaczynski told the weekly magazine Do Rzeczy that the European Union was acting under a “made-up” treaty, and he accused the bloc of failing to respect Poland’s sovereignty, the country and its people.
“If it gets fierce, we will do this,” he said, insisting that the pro-government judges remain in place.
The Polish government says the European Union is interfering in its domestic politics and argued that with a strong majority in Parliament, it has a firm mandate from the people. Ms. Szydlo told Parliament in May that her government would never cave in to an “ultimatum” from Brussels.
More recently, Mr. Kaczynski defied the European Union’s call for solidarity in the face of the worsening refugee crisis, saying Poland would not accept a single refugee because to do so would be a security risk.