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BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union launched legal action against Poland on Wednesday that alleges recent justice laws undermine the independence of the country's judges and comes amid concern the rule of law is being increasingly abused around the bloc.
The EU's executive commission sent a letter of formal notice — the first step in legal action — to the nationalist government in Warsaw and wants a reply addressing its concerns within two months.
Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said disciplinary measures for judges contained in a 2017 law on the Supreme Court of Poland seem designed "to systematically subject judges to the political control of the executive."
Timmermans said investigations that were opened since the rule change have "an obvious, chilling effect on the activities of judges, and this is incompatible with the requirements of judicial independence."
He said the letter gives Poland a chance to explain or change its mind about the laws.
Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro said the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court established under the 2017 law is necessary to ensure the justice system applies in "equal measure to all citizens," including judges accused of wrongdoing.
As evidence of the problem the chamber is meant to address, Ziobro cited a case in which the Supreme Court acquitted a judge who had been seen on CCTV appropriating a 50 zloty ($13) banknote.
Poland's government argues that the deep changes it has made to the judiciary were needed to eliminate corruption and inefficiency left over from the country's communist era. Critics say the government has used it to install ruling party loyalists in key positions.
The EU's move was the latest in a series of procedures launched against Poland that the commission insists is meant to safeguard the rule of law there. The commission has also launched similar action against Hungary.
Timmermans said Brussels believes it is time for a broader reflection on what can be done to protect democracy, personal freedoms and the justice systems of some EU member countries.
"There is a growing consensus that further action to protect the rule of law into the whole of the European Union is needed," he told reporters. Asked whether he is worried about the rule of law in Italy, Timmermans said: "I do not see at this stage a systemic problem."
But he did express concerns about possible back-sliding on reform in Romania, particularly in the fight against corruption.
"I want to warn against any government action that would disrupt the Romanian judicial system by creating a systemic, de-facto impunity for high office holders who were sentenced for corruption," he said. "Such a move would compel the commission to act swiftly."
Wednesday's legal action and warnings have been announced in the run-up to the May 23-26 EU elections. Timmermans is running as a candidate to take over from Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the commission.
Monika Scislowska contributed from Warsaw.
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