EU takes the 'nuclear option' against Poland on eve of British visit
The European Commission has taken the "nuclear option" against Poland over democratic back-sliding, announcing Article 7 proceedings against the eastern EU state for undermining democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The unprecedented step creates a massive diplomatic headache for British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is due to land in Poland today with the chancellor and foreign secretary for an annual UK-Poland summit designed to boost relations with Poland after Brexit.
The decision to trigger Article 7 - an official disciplinary process that could lead to Poland being stripped of its voting rights in the European Council - highlights the growing division between eastern and western Europe over democratic values and migration.
The action against Poland's hardline conservative ruling Law and Justice party, which was elected in 2015, has raised awkward questions for Mrs May about her decision to launch a major diplomatic charm offensive with Warsaw, including sending the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Poland for an official visit last summer.
The Polish foreign ministry has already indicated that it expects Britain to back Poland if it comes to a vote. Hungary has already said it will veto any attempt to sanction Poland, but senior UK diplomats said that the symbolic vote will force the UK to make "extremely uncomfortable" decisions.
In a statement, the EU said: "The Commission has today concluded that there is a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law in Poland. Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country's judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority. In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law."
The Polish foreign ministry said it was "ready for talks" over the Article 7 action, but a spokesman said the decision was "political" and related to Poland's refusal to accept mandatory EU migrant quotas.
"This decision has no merit, it is in our opinion solely a political decision," said Beata Mazurek, the Law and Justice party spokeswoman.
Frans Timmermans, the European Commission vice-president, said 13 laws adopted by Poland in the space of two years had created a situation where the government "can systematically politically interfere with the composition, powers, the administration and the functioning" of judicial authorities.
Among these is a reform that would force 40pc of Poland's Supreme Court judges to retire on age grounds and seek reappointment from the ruling party.
"We do not dispute the rights of a nation to reform its judiciary. It's a thing that's being done in many nations all the time.
"I'm not even disputing the fact that it might be right to do that in Poland.
"But if you reform the judiciary you have to reform by the constitution, and EU law as well, and both the constitution and EU law require the separation of powers," he said.