US and EU criticize Polish plans for law that could keep opposition from holding office

Poland's opposition leader and former prime minister, Donald Tusk, talks to reporters in Warsaw, Poland, Friday, May 26, 2023. Poland's lawmakers have approved a contentious law targeting the opposition. Critics say the law approved Friday violates a number of provisions in Poland's constitution and is a clear example of how the right-wing ruling party is using the law to its own ends. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

By RAF CASERT Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — The United States and the European Union’s top justice official on Tuesday criticized Polish plans for a law that they say could keep political opponents from holding public office without them having the full powers to challenge the decision in court.

The EU also threatened to take measures if it became fully clear such a law would undermine democratic standards.

Polish President Andrzej Duda has already signed the bill that critics view as primarily targeting opposition leader Donald Tusk, the former EU Council president. Proposed by the ruling conservative Law and Justice party as the country heads toward a parliamentary election in the autumn, the bill will become law a week from its publication, which is expected within days.

Experts say the law violates the Polish Constitution and the opposition has called on Duda to reject it.

“The U.S. Government is concerned by the Polish government’s passage of new legislation that could be misused to interfere with Poland’s free and fair elections,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller. He added such a law “could be used to block the candidacy of opposition politicians without due process.”

The 27-nation EU, of which Poland is a member, also issued criticism.

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said Tuesday that such a law would be “able to deprive citizens, individuals of their rights to be elected in a public function — public office.”

He said that what specifically irked him was that “it will be possible to do that as an administrative decision without any judicial review.”

Ahead of a meeting of EU Europe ministers who assessed the state of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, Reynders said that the EU “will not hesitate to take measures if it’s needed because it’s impossible to agree on such a system without a real access to justice.”

The Polish law will create a powerful committee, ostensibly meant to investigate Russian influence in Poland. Law and Justice accuses Tusk of having been too friendly toward Russia as prime minister between 2007 and 2014 and making gas deals favorable to Russia before he went to Brussels to be the president of the European Council between 2014 and 2019.

Poland’s Foreign Ministry reacted to the U.S. criticism by arguing that the new legislation was being misinterpreted and would not interfere with the integrity of elections. “The Committee’s work will not limit voters’ ability to vote for their candidates in elections; on the contrary – it will provide the public with wider access to information about matters crucial to national security,” the ministry said in a statement.

Bowing partially to critics who say the law is unconstitutional, Duda said he was also sending it to the Constitutional Tribunal to review the bill for conformity with the supreme law.

The commission is meant to present a report on its findings by Sept. 17, just weeks before the election — expected in October or November — and could impose punishments, including 10-year bans on officials from positions that have control over spending public funds.

Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Tusk are longtime political rivals.