WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's president signed two laws Wednesday that complete a radical overhaul of the Polish justice system, ignoring a warning from the European Union that the legislation breached fundamental democratic principles and could lead to unprecedented sanctions against the member state.
President Andrzej Duda's approval of the laws he had a hand in drafting was not unexpected, but his announcement came just hours after the EU's executive body triggered proceedings over a series of laws that give the Polish government more control of the judiciary and courts.
The European Commission's decision to trigger what is known as Article 7 comes in reaction to several laws that the right-wing Law and Justice party has enacted during its two years in power that give it greater control over the justice system.
The developments reflect a dramatic historical reversal for Poland, the birthplace of an anti-communist movement in the 1980s that inspired people across Eastern Europe, and a country held up as a model of democratic transition for more than a quarter century.
Though the step was historic — no EU state has ever been censured in this way — for now it is largely symbolic as it involves a warning and mostly reflects the escalating tensions between Poland's populist government and its EU partners.
The final step in the process would involve sanctions, including the loss by Poland of its voting rights in the Council. This step, however, is considered unlikely to happen because it requires unanimity of EU countries, and Hungary's government has vowed to block any such move.
"We are doing this for Poland, for Polish citizens," so they can rely on a fully independent judiciary in their nation, EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans said in announcing the decision.
Timmermans said the decision was taken with a "heavy heart" but had become unavoidable because Poland's authorities could not be persuaded to abandon laws that have been condemned not only by the EU but also by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, the continent's top human rights body.
Poland's government, which has defiantly gone forward with its changes to the legal system despite repeated warnings from the EU, took the decision in its stride.
Duda did not even mention Article 7 in announcing his decision to sign the laws, instead giving a passionate defense of them, He argued they will make an elite group of judges more accountable to regular Poles, and therefore make the justice system more democratic.
He suggested it was unfair to judge Poland for making judges more accountable to politicians, noting that the appointment of judges to the U.S. Supreme Court is also a political process.
Duda's spokesman, Krzysztof Lapinski, told The Associated Press later Wednesday that the president had added his signature to the bills.
The European Commission must now submit a request to the EU member states to declare "a clear risk of serious breach of the rule of law" in Poland. That is essentially a warning, or in EU lingo, a "preventative" measure, that will require that acceptance of 22 EU countries.
The procedure carries a number of risks. While it proving unable to prevent the judicial overhaul, the escalating tensions threaten to increase anti-EU feeling in one of the EU member states with the highest support for the bloc, at more than 80 percent in most polls.
They could also expose the EU actions as largely impotent at a time that the bloc is struggling with other crisis, including Britain's withdrawal and huge numbers of migrants stuck in Italy and Greece that the bloc is struggling to relocate.
Even some of the government's staunchest critics have opposed the step, fearing it will create a sense among some Poles — particularly those who do not understand the complexities of the judicial laws — that they are being targeted unfairly by the EU.
Ryszard Czarnecki, a member of Law and Justice and the vice president of the European Parliament, called the step an "anti-Polish" move that is really meant to punish Poland for not taking migrants in a mandatory EU resettlement plan.
As expected, Hungary came to Poland's defense.
Zsolt Semjen, the deputy prime minister, described the EU decision as "unprecedented and astounding" and reiterated the intention of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to block any sanctions.
"The decision seriously damages Poland's sovereignty," Semjen told state news wire MTI. "It is unacceptable that Brussels is putting pressure on sovereign member states and arbitrarily punishing democratically elected governments."
Raf Casert in Brussels and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed.