Brussels is worried that the legislation could be used to target political opponents
The European Commission has taken legal action against Poland over a new law that allows an unelected committee to bar officials from holding office if they are found guilty of acting under "Russian influence."
The commission "agreed to start an infringement procedure by sending a letter of formal notice in relation to the new law on the state committee for examination of Russian influence," European Commission executive vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis said at a press conference on Wednesday.
Sending a formal letter is the first step in a legal process that could end up at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) if the commission's demands are not met. The ECJ has the power to issue daily fines to member states, and has done so to Poland before over Warsaw's restrictions on judicial independence.
The "Russian influence" law in question was signed by President Andrzej Duda last week. It allows for the country's parliament to appoint a nine-member commission to investigate Russia's supposed influence over the country between 2007 and 2022, "especially in the energy sector," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said last month.
Politicians and business leaders found guilty of acting to "the detriment of the interests" of Poland can be fined or banned from holding public office for a period of ten years.
Opponents of the ruling PiS party argue that the law was crafted to remove opposition leader and former Prime Minister Donald Tusk from politics. Tusk served as PM from 2007 to 2014, and although he advocated a Europe-wide shift away from Russian energy, he signed a gas deal with Moscow in 2010.
"The cowards in the parliament voted for a commission to eliminate their most dangerous enemy," Tusk said after the law narrowly passed the PiS-dominated parliament last month.
With elections scheduled for later this year, the PiS is currently the largest party, with Tusk's Civic Coalition trailing in the polls by single digits and gaining ground. When opposition parties who have pledged to work with Tusk's faction are included, the PiS is losing.
Washington has joined Brussels in criticizing the law. "The US government is concerned by the Polish government's passage of new legislation that could be misused to interfere with Poland's free and fair elections," the US State Department announced last week. "We call on the government of Poland to ensure this law does not preempt voters' ability to vote for the candidate of their choice."