Poland-EU showdown: what is the Article 7 ‘nuclear option’?

In Depth: Theresa May is heading to Warsaw amid EU-wide dispute over Polish judicial reforms

Poland protest
Protesters raise candles during a protest against judicial reform in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw
(Image credit: Adam Chelstowski/AFP/Getty Images)

European Commission officials have threatened to invoke Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty today in a long-standing row over Poland’s authoritarian judicial reforms.

The row could prove tricky for Theresa May, who is heading to Warsaw this week for a summit at which she hopes to push her vision of a post-Brexit trading relationship with the rest of Europe. The Prime Minister is likely to be asked about the two-year row over Polish judicial independence and Warsaw’s opposition to the EU’s refugee resettlement plans.

“The threat to make Poland a pariah in the EU family comes at a highly embarrassing moment for Mrs May, who is due to visit Warsaw on Thursday as part of a massive diplomatic charm offensive that has been launched by Britain towards Poland since Brexit,” says The Daily Telegraph.

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So what is Article 7 and how could it affect Poland?

What is Article 7?

Article 7 was established to ensure that the bloc respects the “common values of the EU”, Politico says. The never-before-invoked clause permits the EU to punish member states who fail to uphold the bloc’s basic ideals: the respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

How is Article 7 invoked?

Article 7’s preventive mechanism allows for members to warn Poland before a “serious breach” has materialised. Poland then has several weeks to respond, The Guardian says.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is to lead the discussion today over whether to recommend activation of the EU disciplinary process, says the BBC News website. “It could see Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki hauled before his fellow leaders, who could insist on changes.”

Sanctions could include Poland losing billions of euros of EU aid, Reuters reports.

Article 7’s sanctioning mechanism also allows for a so-called “nuclear option” - a suspension of Poland’s voting rights in the council of ministers in the case of a “serious and persistent breach” of EU values.

But the decision to take away voting rights would have to be unanimous among the bloc, and Hungary has already promised to veto any attempt to establish such a breach, Politico says.

Is there a chance that Poland will leave the EU?

It's unlikely.

“What’s occurring in Poland is parallel to what is occurring in Britain with Brexit,” says the US think tank Council on Foreign Relations. “At the core of it, the Polish ruling party is alleging that it is exercising sovereignty and taking [back] control. There is talk of a Polexit. It is clear that national sovereignty is vital to Poland, and it is often referred to by Polish authorities in response to the EU Commission’s criticisms of its reforms of the judiciary.”

But University of Warsaw Professor Piotr Wawrzyk told the Daily Express in August that he doesn’t believe the bloc will follow through on sanctions.

“Those are just scare tactics. The commissioner himself cannot instigate any sanctions,” said Wawrzyk. “This is not cooperation, only them saying, ‘We are bigger and smarter, better listen to us and do as we say’.”

Wawrzyk claimed that Poland would only quit the union if the EU continued to push its politics and forced Poland to adopt the euro.

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