Polish human rights chief Adam Bodnar criticised the EU for its slow response to the government's rule of law violations, warning in an interview that Poland risked becoming "undemocratic".
The ombudsman told AFP that the governing populists were "trying to incapacitate or take over additional power mechanisms one by one".
The 44-year-old law professor spoke to AFP this past week in the wake of a ruling from the Constitutional Court in April which ordered him to quit his post within weeks.
The Law and Justice (PiS) party, in power since 2015, "marginalises the role of parliament, has in large part brought to heel the Constitutional Court, the prosecutor's office, public media, as well as certain judicial institutions," he said.
The European Commission has for years tried to bring Poland -- and its ally Hungary -- back into line with what it considers democratic norms.
Bodnar said the EU executive's responses had resulted in positive changes in Poland in the past but noted a shift since Ursula von der Leyen became European Commission president in 2019.
"I get the sense that there has been this constant search for a supposed compromise, consensus and dialogue with the Polish government... which hasn't really accomplished anything," he said.
"Meanwhile the government used that time to introduce and solidify changes and to increasingly strive toward pushing the boundaries regarding the subordination of the judiciary," he added.
"And even when the Commission's response did take place, it came too late relative to what was needed."
The PiS, whose members have accused Bodnar of being biased toward the opposition, insists its reforms are needed to tackle corruption and remove the last vestiges of communism from the justice system.
- Polexit? -
Later this month, the Constitutional Court will take on the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which recently opposed a key part of the government's controversial judicial reforms.
The court is due to rule on whether Warsaw must follow interim orders from the ECJ -- a case that boils down to whether EU or Polish law has primacy.
Bodnar warns the ruling could be part of a "legal Polexit", noting "a growing process of ignoring the principle that EU law has sovereignty" in Poland.
He believes the verdict may lead the government to disregard both past and future ECJ orders. The EU has mechanisms it could deploy in response, including financial penalties, but it would likely take several months for Brussels to act.
"Every additional ruling of this kind isn't just a symbol but also a pushing of boundaries in the direction of an undemocratic state," he said.
He believes the current situation is an existential issue for the European Union as a whole.
"What is the EU supposed to be? A community based on democratic values -- or just a loose confederation of states that will include both democratic and authoritarian states?" he asked, warning the latter "could spell a breakup of the EU".
- Battle over a successor -
Bodnar said his counterparts from other countries have expressed "shock and concern regarding the situation in Poland," especially now that his office itself has become part of the story, amid a battle over appointing a successor.
The institution of an independent ombudsman dates back to 19th-century Sweden and the office exists in some form or another in more than 100 countries.
"In Poland, the Communist Party hit upon the idea in the late 1980s. It was seen as a kind of concession to the opposition and to democratic aspirations at the time," Bodnar said.
Other Central and Eastern European countries followed suit.
Bodnar was appointed just before the current government took power and his five-year term formally expired in September.
But he has stayed on because the lower house of parliament, where the PiS and its smaller coalition partners hold a majority, and the opposition-controlled Senate have failed to agree on a successor.
Last month, the Constitutional Court ruled that Bodnar's extension was not compatible with the constitution, giving him three months to leave.
It is unclear what would happen if no replacement is found.
Bodnar sees the row over the position as a natural progression of the ruling party's strategy, arguing that the PiS wants to ensure that the next ombudsman "isn't too independent, too capable of continually checking those in power."