09:42, December 20 290 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-20 09:42:05
Theresa May to visit Poland amid EU row over judicial reforms

Theresa May will visit Poland on Thursday as the EU launched unprecedented action against the country for a “serious breach” of its values, which could ultimately lead to Warsaw stripped of its voting rights in Brussels.

The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, said it was imperative the prime minister raised concerns over reforms that critics say are anti-democratic and threaten the independence of the judiciary in Poland.

“Time and again on her foreign travels, from Saudi Arabia and Turkey to her various meetings with Donald Trump, Theresa May has chosen to duck the difficult issues rather than confront them,” Thornberry told the Guardian.

“She must not repeat that failure in Poland. She must demand that the government either stop undermining human rights and democratic freedoms in Poland through these judicial reforms, or face the loss of its voting rights within the EU.”

European commissioners have recommended member states issue a formal warning to Poland under the article 7 procedure, which has never before been used, warning Poland’s government is putting fundamental democratic values at risk.

Thus far, the UK has remained neutral in the growing rift between Poland’s hardline rightwing government and the EU, concerned about the optics of Brussels appearing to interfere with a country’s domestic affairs.

May will travel to Warsaw as part of a landmark diplomacy drive centred on defence and security, as well as economic co-operation, accompanied by her most senior cabinet ministers, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, and the business secretary, Greg Clark.

The EU has repeatedly warned that it regards Poland’s judicial reforms as unacceptable, but the decision to trigger the formal article 7 process to censure the Warsaw government is an unprecedented act against a member state.

The sanction was discussed on Wednesday at a meeting of European commissioners with their president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

The row has come to a head after a decision by the Polish senate to give the executive greater control of the supreme court and the judicial appointments’ body, defended by Poland’s new prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) party.

The commission will firstly offer member states the option to issue a formal warning to Poland that its reforms offend the fundamental values of the EU. To proceed, agreement would need to be reached with 22 out of 28 member states, giving Poland several weeks to respond.

The EU has the power to suspend voting rights under article 7 but only with unanimous agreement between member states. Hungary has already said it would veto such a move.

Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister and now leader of the liberal group in the European parliament, told the Telegraph: “I hope Theresa May will firmly raise this issue in Warsaw. This visit is an important first test of the UK’s pledge to defend European liberal democratic values, as we move forward together to build a strong security partnership,”

The vote is likely to put the UK in a bind, with Poland viewed as a key ally ahead of the upcoming Brexit trade negotiations. Conservative MEPs sit in the same conservative grouping in the European parliament as the Law and Justice (Pis) party.

The UK has sought to court Polish support over the last few months, despite rising concern about the actions of the hardline government, including dining with former prime minster Beata Szydło at a summit in Sweden and deploying 150 soldiers from the British Light Dragoons to the Polish-Russian border to counter potential Russian aggression.

Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge also visited the country as part of the European tour this summer.