Lawmakers agreed to a host of new legislation that essentially gives Poland’s parliament de facto control over the selection of judges in the country.
Poland’s government has pushed a raft of controversial policies with the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party seeking to increase its control after a huge electoral success in 2015.
The nationalist and eurosceptic party wants to give justice ministers the power to hire and fire senior judges – something that has raised concerns among European Union chiefs.
The laws, if now agreed by the Senate and President Andrzej Duda, will heighten tensions with the EU which has threatened legal action over proposed reform that it says will subvert the rule of law.
Last month Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European Commission, urged Warsaw not to “ignore” Brussels and respect its more moderate approach to law across the bloc.
The Dutch politician said PiS already had such a strong mandate it could find other ways to establish itself without adjusting the country’s justice system.
But the eurosceptic PiS, which holds a majority in parliament, argues the judiciary needs to be changed to repair a corrupt system and make courts more efficient.
The PiS government accuses Mr Timmermans, who has led a legal case against it for more than a year, of waging a vendetta against Poland.
But concern at the way PiS is running Poland is growing – with one man setting himself on fire in protest in October
Critics of the deeply conservative government see the proposed reforms as part of a broader shift towards authoritarianism by the deeply conservative government and will threaten the impartiality of the courts.
A panel of constitutional law experts of the human rights body Council of Europe said on Friday the proposed reforms imperilled all parts of the judiciary and would “lead to a far-reaching politicisation of this body”.
Under the legislation, heavily supported by PiS lawmakers, the parliament would have a virtual free hand in choosing members of the National Judiciary Council (KRS), a powerful body that decides judicial appointments and promotions which was a right earlier reserved chiefly for the judges themselves.
A second bill, also approved, envisages lowering the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court judges to 65 years from 70, which would force a significant part of them to leave.
“We are moving forward with reforms of the justice system, and the Supreme Court reform is an element of this process,” said Pawel Mucha, an adviser to Duda.
The running battle between Brussels and Warsaw highlights a widening rift between Eastern and Western Europe on a number of issues including migration and employment laws.