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14.03.2016: Max Planck Forum. How to Protect European Values - Assessing European Responses to Recent Reforms in Poland

A Max Planck Forum on “How to Protect European Values – Assessing European Responses to Recent Reforms in Poland” took place at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften in Berlin. In addition to the institute’s director, Armin von Bogdandy, discussion participants included Adam Bodnar, the Commissioner for Human Rights in Poland; Christoph Grabenwarter, Vice President of the Venice Commission and Judge at the Austrian Constitutional Court; and Renáta Uitz, Professor at the Central European University in the department of Legal Studies in Budapest. The session was moderated by our academic coordinator, Alexandra Kemmerer.

The Forum’s aim was to discuss the Venice Commission’s report (Opinion no. 833/2015) of 11 March 2016 on the recent reforms of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal and Public Service Broadcasters, as well as the first launch of the EU framework to strengthen the Rule of Law.

Since the new Polish government has been in power, there have been several reforms that are viewed critically concerning rule of law and democracy. Firstly, the government passed a law stating that a two-thirds majority has to be reached for a decision, while at least 13 out of 15 judges are present. Critics claim this law renders the Constitutional Tribunal inefficient, especially as there are just twelve judges presently elected. According to the second reform, the heads of the public media institutions are to be announced by the Polish government, evoking concerns about the freedom of the press. Lastly, public officers can now be employed not only based on their qualification, but also with respect to their political orientation.

The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, whose opinion on the reforms of the Constitutional Tribunal was requested by the Foreign Minister of Poland, condemns the recent reforms in the country and suggests some alternatives (for example, the election process of the constitutional judges). According to its opinion, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s judgement 47/15 of 11 March 2016 on the constitutional reforms had to be published in order not to deepen the constitutional crisis.

After a short introduction by Alexandra Kemmerer highlighting recent events, the panellists each gave statements, which were then opened to discussion.

Professor Grabenwarter pointed out that the speed of the events in Poland had been a crucial consideration for the Venice Commission. The European discourse and putting pressure on the government, as well as the opposition, was very important.

Coming from a Hungarian background, Professor Uitz related the Polish events to the situation in Hungary, where the constitution also became a primary target of the government. She underlined that, with the incapability of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal to act, the European community was left to question who the constitution’s guardian is.

The Polish ombudsman Bodnar conveyed that he supported the role of the Venice Commission. Generally, he found that Poland had a “legal society” that was proud of their constitution and system of checks and balances, and feels ashamed by the recent events.

Professor von Bogdandy talked about the necessity to view the Polish affair as concerning all EU citizens. Defying the Constitutional Court was an “incarnation of not respecting the rule of law”. Furthermore, it would be wrong to talk about article 7 TEU as the “nuclear option”, since it was just a legal and legitimate instrument of the EU. Finally, he pointed out that “what is required [from Poland] is nothing else than to stand by Polish identity.”

Overall, the panelists agreed that the constitutional crisis could in fact be solved by Poland itself.

A virtual community followed the discussion via livestream on Verfassungsblog and via Twitter and was given the chance to ask questions.


Report: Lea Brinkmann, Sandra Sobol

Foto: Arne Sattler

At the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (BBAW).

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A recording of the event, livestreamed via Verfassungsblog, is available at

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