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article imagePolish president scraps court reform bid as EU issues warning

By C├ędric SIMON, Danny KEMP (AFP)     Sep 25, 2017 in World

Poland's president on Monday scrapped his bid to give himself more power over the judiciary, as the EU warned that Warsaw still risked unprecedented sanctions over what it calls a threat to the rule of law.

Andrzej Duda made a sudden U-turn just hours after proposing to change the Polish constitution, when lawmakers told him he would not have parliamentary backing for the move.

Duda had on Monday morning presented his own version of laws in place of government reform proposals he vetoed in July, to the surprise and dismay of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

"There's no chance for this amendment to pass," Duda said in a televised statement.

Proposals to overhaul Poland's judicial system have led to mass street protests and prompted Polish freedom icon Lech Walesa to express concern about his country's fate in Europe.

The EU says all the Polish reforms pose a "systemic threat" to the rule of law, with Brussels having warned it could go for a so-called nuclear option of freezing Poland's voting rights within the bloc.

After a meeting with European affairs ministers from the 28-nation bloc to discuss the problem, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said they were united in their concern.

- 'Other worries' -

"We will study very carefully the amended proposals announced by President Duda this morning, we will make our comments on that once we have analysed it," Timmermans said.

"But apart from those two drafts there are other worries we have... there's still a lot we need to do before we can say that the problem has been solved," he said.

Timmermans added that the concerns over Poland went right to the heart of what the EU does as an organisation, "because if the rule of law doesn't function well, the internal market can't function well."

Timmermans, the right-hand man to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, has been leading efforts for months to get Poland to comply with EU democracy standards.

If Warsaw fails to halt the measures, the commission -- the EU's powerful executive arm -- has also warned it could trigger Article Seven of the EU's treaties, which could eventually suspend Poland's right to vote in the bloc.

Hungary has vowed to veto any such step against its Polish ally, deepening fears of a split between the European Union's west and an increasingly rightwing and authoritarian east.

Poland's Duda surprised many in July when he vetoed a bill that would have reinforced political control over the Supreme Court, and another that allowed parliament to choose members of a body designed to protect the independence of the courts.

In his own version unveiled Monday, Duda had proposed that a minimum of 60 percent of lawmakers would be required to choose members of the court watchdog so that no single party -- effectively the PiS -- could dominate.

The president would then get power to choose the council members if parliament could not agree within two months.

Having heard from both government and opposition lawmakers that giving the president such power would be unconstitutional, he proposed amending the constitution to make it possible.

But he scrapped the amendment because of lack of support.

Duda also presented his own version of the Supreme Court bill, which would also increase his powers by letting him decide which judges can remain on the bench past the retirement age of 65.

- At loggerheads -

Poland and Brussels have been increasingly at odds on a series of issues.

The Polish government is also defying a European Court of Justice injunction to suspend logging in the Bialowieza Forest, Europe's last primeval woodland.

In March, meanwhile, Warsaw tried to bloc the re-election of European Council President Donald Tusk -- a former Polish premier and rival to PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

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