Three government-backed bills, two already passed by parliament, would give Poland's ruling conservatives powers to appoint judges to the country’s district and appeals courts, the Supreme Court, and to a judicial ethics supervisory council.
Poland's ruling party has said the changes are needed to reform an inefficient and sometimes corrupt judicial system.
But the Members of European Parliament slammed the bills, saying “the survival of democracy and the rule of law is at stake”.
In a letter to European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, the MEPs said that the proposed laws “significantly weaken the independence and impartiality of the Polish judiciary… as well as separation of powers in Poland.”
They added that the reforms “abolish” the rule of law in Poland, violating both the Polish Constitution and the EU's fundamental principles. They asked Tajani to call upon the Venice Commission, the EU's human rights watchdog, to “urgently review” the proposed Polish laws.
The MEPs also asked Polish President Andrzej Duda to veto the bills. Duda hails from the ruling, conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.
PiS MEP Ryszard Czarnecki accused the letter's signatories of being unfamiliar with the Polish bills.
“It seems they did not make the effort of reading what we have proposed,” Czarnecki said.
“If they had, they would see that there are solutions found also in German, Dutch, Spanish and other EU countries’ legislation,” he added.
He also said Poland's justice system was a matter for Poland, not the European Parliament.
The letter was signed by the leaders of five of the six largest factions in the European Parliament – including the European People's Party, and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats – which make up about three-quarters of the parliament.
The European Conservatives and Reformists, the European Parliament's third-largest grouping which includes Poland's governing Law and Justice party, did not sign.
Thousands of Poles have taken to the streets in opposition to the proposed judicial reforms, accusing PiS of staging a “coup d'etat” and turning Poland into a “dictatorship”.
One of the bills passed in parliament last week would change the way that heads of district and appeals courts are appointed, making the justice minister solely responsible for such decisions.
Another would change the National Council of the Judiciary, a constitutional body tasked with safeguarding the independence of courts and judges.
It would see the terms of 15 of its members who are judges phased out, and their replacements selected by parliament – not by other legal professionals, as is currently the case.
The proposed reform of the Supreme Court, which also confirms election results, would see the court’s existing judges retired and reinstatement only possible on the justice minister’s approval.
PiS has said that “far-reaching, radical” reforms are needed to fix the “collapse of moral principles” in the Polish judiciary.
Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro told public broadcaster TVP that the changes serve democracy and citizens.
He added that the justice system would be equipped with “tools to deal with increasingly frequent irregularities in the judiciary”.
He claimed the Polish judiciary had “almost totally broken away from democratic control mechanisms”.
PiS supporters have criticised Polish courts for taking too long to hear cases, and have accused judges of being an elite, self-serving clique often out of touch with the problems of ordinary citizens.
Poland is already embroiled in a row with Brussels over PiS's sweeping changes to the Constitutional Tribunal and concerns about the rule of law, which have caused bitter divisions in Poland and concern abroad.
The European Commission is expected to weigh in on the planned reforms later this week. (vb/pk)