WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The European Union has ratcheted up its criticism of the Polish government over its respect for the rule of law and issued more recommendations for Warsaw to fix its problems.
EU Vice-President Frans Timmermans said Wednesday that the 28-nation bloc "will not drop this matter" until the Polish government addresses questions about the independence of its judiciary and other issues perceived as backsliding on fundamental political rights.
"I think this is a substantial challenge for the rule of law in Poland, and the rule of law is the basis upon which a whole European structure is built," Timmermans said a news conference in Brussels.
"We feel a strong, strong feeling of solidarity with the Polish people who deserve, like all Europeans, to have an independent judiciary, to have a full separation of powers in their country."
The new EU warnings came as a bitter political standoff in Poland hardened, with opposition politicians vowing to continue a sit-in inside parliament through the upcoming Christmas and New Year holidays.
At the heart of the matter is whether the populist and nationalist Law and Justice party is taking an authoritarian turn and eroding democratic institutions.
Grzegorz Schetyna, head of the opposition Civic Platform party, said the protesting lawmakers will remain inside the parliament's main assembly hall in protest until Jan. 11, when parliament is set to resume after a holiday break. They are protesting steps by the ruling Law and Justice party that they deem undemocratic.
Meanwhile, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the powerful chairman of Law and Justice, said the behavior of the rebellious lawmakers is of a "criminal nature" and appealed to them to respect the law.
At the same time, Kaczynski said he wanted reconciliation with the opposition, wished his opponents happy holidays and declared: "We value the opinion of the opposition; this is the salt of democracy."
The key opposition parties — Civic Platform and Modern, which are both centrist, pro-European parties — insist that the government is eroding democracy. It's a view backed by large numbers of protesters who have turned out on the streets of Warsaw and other cities since the latest crisis erupted last Friday.
Though the protests have been mostly peaceful, there have been some isolated scuffles and, in a sign of mounting emotions, cases where the protesters tried to block cars carrying ruling party officials.
In reaction, the state authorities have increased security outside of the parliament in Warsaw, site of most of the protests, erecting metal barriers that force the protesters further from the building.
The army has also deployed the gendarmerie to help secure the parliament, with the deputy Interior Minister Jaroslaw Zielinski telling senators that the deployment is meant to "ensure the work of the state and of its institutions."
However, the presence of military police is adding to anxieties among anti-government protesters and is feeding fears that the government might plan some sort of crack-down to pacify the social discontent.
Raf Casert in Brussels and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.