BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission stepped up legal proceedings against Poland on Wednesday to protect the independence of the country's judges, giving the government in Warsaw one month to respond before suing it in the European Union's top court.
The step is one of several gradual actions the EU executive has taken to protect the Polish judicial system from political interference by the ruling eurosceptic and nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party since it returned to power in 2015.
To discipline judges, the ruling party has created a new chamber in Poland's supreme court, which was suspended by the EU's top court pending a ruling on its independence from politicians. But the chamber has continued to operate.
"The Commission considers that Poland violates EU law by allowing the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Court – the independence and impartiality of which is not guaranteed – to take decisions, which have a direct impact on judges and the way they exercise their function," the EU executive said.
"These matters include cases of the lifting of immunity of judges with a view to bringing criminal proceedings against them, and the consequent temporary suspension from office and the reduction of their salary."
The Commission said the Disciplinary Chamber was also deciding on matters related to labour law, social security and the retirement of Supreme Court judges.
It sent an additional reasoned opinion to Poland asking why the Supreme Court's Disciplinary Chamber continues to function. Its previous reasoned opinion, sent to Warsaw last October, did not address the Commission's concerns, it said.
"Poland has one month to reply to this additional reasoned opinion and to take the necessary measures to comply with EU law, otherwise the Commission may refer the case to the Court of Justice," the Commission said.
Since 2017, Poland has been investigated under rule-of-law infringement procedure over the lack of separation of the judiciary, executive and legislative powers, but the process has failed to ease the EU's concerns. The EU put Hungary under the same infringement procedure in 2018.
(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Editing by Timothy Heritage)