Poland’s parliament passed legislation Wednesday to reinstate Supreme Court judges who were recently forced to retire, a step that could significantly ease a standoff with the European Union.
For the EU, which is facing a string of crises, including Brexit and Italy’s debt, it was a rare victory in its struggle to preserve democracy in a region where illiberal populism has been on the rise, a trend led by Hungary.
Wednesday’s development comes a month after the EU’s court ordered Poland to immediately suspend the lowering of the retirement age for Supreme Court judges, which had forced about two dozen of them off the bench.
The forced retirement of the judges was widely seen as an attempt by the ruling populist party, Law and Justice, to stack the court with loyalists, and it was condemned internationally as a blow to democratic standards.
Poland has been in a standoff with the EU for three years over attempts by Law and Justice, under the leadership of powerful party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to impose control over the court system.
Many legal experts said that the forced retirement of the Supreme Court judges, including the chief justice, violated Poland’s constitution. That, along with the broader overhaul of the justice system, has raised serious concerns over rule of law in the young democracy, with the EU saying the changes erode the independence of the judicial branch of government.
Wednesday’s legislative initiative — which noted that it was introduced to comply with the EU court ruling — marks one of the first significant steps by Poland to meet EU demands.
“We know very well that in politics effectiveness matters and that sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward,” said Stanislaw Piotrowicz, a ruling party lawmaker and one of the key architects of the judicial overhaul, in an interview with the wPolityce.pl portal.
Zselyke Csaky, an expert on Central Europe with Freedom House, called it a “significant” step and a sign by the ruling party of “common sense,” though she also said on Twitter that “the full damage to rule of law and legal certainty will be much harder to remedy.”
The Polish government, in power since 2015, has been forced to climb down before. Earlier this year it softened a Holocaust speech law that made it a crime to attribute co-responsibility in the Holocaust to the Polish nation and which sparked a major diplomatic dispute with Israel. It also dropped draft legislation in 2016 that would have tightened the already restrictive abortion law after massive street protests by women wearing black.
But it is an almost unheard-of concession to the EU, which the government often says has no right to meddle in its internal affairs.
Under the amendment passed Wednesday to the new law on the Supreme Court, the judges who were forced to retire early will have the choice of returning to their duties. The law had lowered the retirement age from 70 to 65, and any judge who wished to remain had to request the consent of the president.
The party introduced the amended legislation to the parliament Wednesday and it was passed quickly by the lower house. It goes next to the Senate and also needs the president’s signature, but since both are aligned with the party, these steps are all but certain to happen.
The party’s reversal comes after local elections last month that showed Law and Justice winning the most seats in regional assemblies but losing badly in mayoral races in the cities and even mid-size towns. The results suggested the party’s conflicts with the EU — which is extremely popular among voters — have cost it votes among urban, middle-class voters.
It also comes as the party, which has a strong anti-corruption profile, finds itself mired in corruption allegations. Last week the head of the state financial authorities resigned over allegations he had solicited a bribe of millions of dollars from a billionaire who heads two troubled banks.