By Pawel Sobczak
WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish President Andrzej Duda unveiled proposals on Monday for judiciary reform that is viewed by the European Union and critics of the government as a crucial gauge of Warsaw's adherence to rule-of-law standards.
Duda, an ally of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, unexpectedly vetoed its overhaul of the judiciary in July after the proposals triggered nationwide protests and raised EU and U.S. concerns about a politicization of the courts.
The eurosceptic PiS says reform of the judicial system is needed because the courts are slow, inefficient and steeped in a communist-era mentality, but critics of the plans say the new rules are part of a bigger drive toward authoritarianism.
It is unclear to what extent Duda's alternative draft legislation will allay critics' concerns or meet government expectations, but both sides may need to compromise for the laws to be agreed.
The PiS's powerful leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, held a meeting with Duda on Friday and emerged to declare himself "optimistic".
"The road to an agreement is open and I don't think it will be a particularly difficult road," Kaczynski was quoted as saying by state-controlled broadcaster TVP.
Under the vetoed reforms, all current Supreme Court judges would have been removed immediately unless they had the approval of the justice minister, who is also prosecutor general.
Parliament, meanwhile, would have been granted the right to name most of the National Council of the Judiciary, which would nominate future candidates to preside over the Supreme Court.
Any progress or otherwise is being watched closely in Brussels, where other EU members are considering potential punishment for the nationalist PiS cabinet over democratic standards.
The EU is applying mounting pressure on the PiS and a meeting of EU ministers on Monday aims to measure the appetite for unprecedented action against Warsaw.
Since coming to power, PiS has not only increased government influence over the courts but has also brought prosecutors and state media under direct government control and introduced some restrictions on public gathering. It denies retreating on democracy.
It argues that it has a broad mandate to implement reforms and that its policies aim to improve a poorly functioning state, bolster Poland's standing in the global arena, preserve its conservative values and correct mistakes by previous governments that were too dependent on foreign influence.
In proposing his own judiciary rules, Duda is likely to weigh their potential impact on his re-election prospects in 2020. Though he remains Poland's most popular politician, with approval ratings of more than 70 percent, Duda may need PiS support to win enough votes.
Opposition politicians remained skeptical whether his proposals will address concerns.
Ryszard Petru, head of the liberal Nowoczesna party, said on Saturday that he expects Duda's rules to amount to "another attempt at subordinating and threatening the courts", according to state news agency PAP.
Jaroslaw Flis, a sociologist at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, said the rift between Duda and the government was "an internal power struggle" among Poland's conservatives.
"Duda knows his legislative proposals need PiS support, but PiS also needs him. They cannot push anything through without the president," Flis said.
(Additional reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Writing by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by David Goodman)