Ireland could stop the extradition of a Polish national if it concludes that Poland’s recent overhaul of its judiciary means it can no longer guarantee a fair trial, an adviser to the European Union’s top court said.
The case highlights how the sweeping court changes carried out by the ruling nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) have damaged Poland’s reputation among its EU peers.
The reforms, introduced since PiS won power in late 2015, have been heavily criticized by the EU, rights and lobby groups, as well as the domestic political opposition for undercutting the courts’ independence and thereby weakening democracy.
The EU is conducting an unprecedented investigation into the impact of the changes on the rule of law – a founding principle of the bloc – in Poland, its largest ex-communist member state.
The Polish detainee, wanted back home on drug trafficking charges, does not want to be extradited and says that because of the recent changes to the Polish justice system, he would be at real risk of not receiving a fair trial in Poland.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) often, though not always, follows the advice of its Advocate General in its final rulings.
In this case, the Advocate General said that if the Irish court decided that “there is a real risk of flagrant denial of justice on account of deficiencies in the system of justice” in Poland and that the wanted person would be affected by it, the Irish court could postpone the extradition.
To mend fences with the EU after two years of bitter spats over the rule of law, Warsaw has this year offered some concessions on the courts. The EU says they are not enough and wants to pile on further pressure as part of its rule of law review, even though Warsaw seems willing to move more.
The probe could in theory lead to suspending Poland’s voting rights in the EU if it does not chance tack, but that would require unanimity of all other EU states. Hungary’s eurosceptic government, an ally of Poland, has vowed to block such a move.
The ability of EU member states to trust each other’s judicial system is also crucial to conducting free business and trade. The controversy has left Poland increasingly isolated within the bloc and undermined its leverage, including in negotiations over the EU’s next seven-year budget from 2021.