EU launches legal action against Poland over new Russian influence law

BRUSSELS — The European Union launched legal action on Thursday against member state Poland over a controversial new law that the nationalist government says is aimed at combating Russian influence, but which critics say could also be used to persecute opposition politicians.

The European Commission believes that the new law “unreasonably interferes with democratic processes” and “violates the principle of democracy” and “violates the right to effective judicial protection”. The EU executive oversees compliance with the bloc’s laws.

The law was passed in May, ahead of an expected autumn general election, and allows for the creation of a commission to investigate Russian influence in Poland. Critics argue it has unconstitutional powers, including the ability to bar officials from public life for a decade.

This seems to have strengthened the population’s support for the opposition. Over the weekend, around 500,000 people took part in a huge anti-government demonstration, according to the organizers. Citizens traveled from across the country to voice their anger at officials who they say have eroded democratic norms and raised fears that the nation is following Hungary and Turkey on the path to autocracy.

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The protest was led by the main opposition leader, Donald Tusk, a former top EU official. It was the largest demonstration in Poland in decades, although state television said there were no more than 150,000 people. TVP was accused of severely underestimating the turnout.

The march was held on the anniversary of a defining moment in Poland’s history, the partially free elections of June 4, 1989, which paved the way for the end of communist rule. It happened about five months before the elections in which the ruling Law and Justice party is fighting for a third term.

As the first step in legal action, the EU Commission sent a “formal letter of formal notice” to the Warsaw government outlining its grievances. Poland has 21 days to respond to the letter, and after further discussions, the government can expect serious fines if it does not comply.

Brussels is concerned that the law contains broad and vague definitions of “Russian influence” and “activity”. It says the law “violates the principles of legality and non-retroactivity” because it can disqualify officials for a decade for past lawful conduct.

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European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova said the institution had given Poland an unusually tight deadline to respond — Brussels often allows two months in such cases — because the law could affect Poland’s general election, which is likely to be held by October.

The committee, he told reporters, “is working with urgency, because we believe that this law is really a very serious blow to democratic processes and the fairness of elections.”

The move came just two days after the EU’s top court, the European Court of Justice, confirmed that Poland had refused to comply with the bloc’s rules on judicial independence. The government has already been fined more than 500 million euros ($535 million) over the case, but has so far refused to pay.

Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk, Poland’s minister for EU affairs, said on Wednesday that the government would “provide legal and factual arguments in this case after learning of the doubts of the European Commission”.

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“Poland, as the largest country neighboring Russia, not only has the full right, but also the duty to examine these impacts,” he said, according to state news agency PAP. “We want the decisions made in this case to be based on facts, not media hype, and we will present those facts.”


Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this report.