By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Poland's new prime minister said on Thursday he expected the European Commission to launch an unprecedented punishment procedure against Warsaw next week after months of wrangling over the rule of law.
Several thousand people gathered in Poland's largest towns on Thursday evening to protest against a judiciary system overhaul, while the upper chamber of parliament discussed the proposed legislation.
Mateusz Morawiecki, who took over as Poland's premier this week, has defended the judicial changes pushed over two years by his predecessor from the same Law and Justice (PiS) party, saying they were necessary to heal the courts.
Western European Union peers, the bloc's executive Commission, opposition at home and democracy advocates say the reforms undermine court independence by putting them under more direct government control.
Under the legislation, parliament would have a virtual free hand in choosing members of the National Judiciary Council (KRS), a body that decides judicial appointments and promotions - a right earlier reserved chiefly for the judges themselves.
A second bill 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.
This, as well as the eurosceptic, nationalist PiS's changes to the state media, have prompted the Commission to threaten for many months to launch the so-called Article 7 against Warsaw.
PiS faced renewed accusations that it was muzzling free media after Poland's media regulator slapped a $415,000 fine on a leading, U.S.-owned news broadcaster TVN24 over its coverage of opposition protests in parliament last year.
Morawiecki rejected the view that the penalty amounted to an assault on the freedom of media in Poland, saying the country of 38 million people enjoyed full media pluralism. He expected TVN to challenge the move in courts which would make the final call.
PiS has also locked horns with the EU over large-scale logging in the unique Bialowieza forest, which Warsaw says is necessary to keep the woods healthy but Brussels and environmental groups say violate wildlife protection laws.
Bitter feuds over migration - which Morawiecki on Thursday called a political "hot potato" - have added to the growing isolation of the bloc's largest ex-communist country since PiS won elections in late 2015.
Article 7 would see Poland's government denounced as undemocratic and could lead to the suspension of Warsaw's voting rights in the EU. The latter, however, is unlikely as it would require the unanimous backing of all the other EU states, something PiS ally Hungary has vowed to block.
But Morawiecki, speaking ahead of his first summit of EU leaders in Brussels, seemed to accept that the blow was coming.
"If a process has started and, as far as I understand, the decision has already been made that next Wednesday the European Commission plans to start (the procedure), then it will most likely be triggered," he told reporters.
"From the start of such an unfair procedure for us, until it ends, we will certainly talk to our partners."
A senior EU official said the Commission's head, Jean-Claude Juncker would still seek to dissuade Warsaw from going ahead with the two judiciary laws, which were passed by Poland's lower chamber of parliament.
They must still go through the PiS-dominated upper house and be signed by the PiS-allied president to take effect.
"If the court changes go through then we will trigger Article 7," the senior official said. "If the changes are postponed until January, then we will see."
Morawiecki stuck to his guns over the courts and Poland's refusal to host some of the refugees who reach the bloc. He said Poland would respect the final ruling of the bloc's top court on the Bialowieza forest. So far, Warsaw has continued the logging despite an interim order by the court to stop immediately.
Morawiecki added he would seek to convince France to soften its stance on a reform of the bloc's labour laws. President Emmanuel Macron wants them tightened because he sees them as giving too much of a competitive edge to cheaper labour from the poorer eastern Europe at the expense of France's own workers.
(Additional reporting Robin Emmott in Brussels, Anna Koper in Warsaw; Writing by Jan Strupczewski and Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Richard Balmforth)