The European Union said Saturday it has launched legal action against Poland's right-wing government over a new law it fears will undermine the independence of the country's common courts.
The action taken by the European Commission, the EU executive, could lead to Poland being hauled before the 28-nation bloc's highest court, the European Court of Justice, and eventually given a fine.
The commission is now coming down hard on Warsaw to prevent what it says is not just an increasing threat to Poland's democratic standards but those across the 28-nation bloc.
"The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Poland by sending a letter of formal notice, following the publication in the Polish Official Journal of the Law on the Ordinary Courts Organisation on Friday 28 July," the European Commission said in a statement.
It said Poland's governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) had one month to respond to Commission concerns, including that "the independence of Polish courts will be undermined" by increased powers for the justice minister.
Other concerns, it said, include "discrimination on the basis of gender due to the introduction of a different retirement age" for female and male judges.
The legal action had been expected after Polish President Andrzej Duda signed into law a measure earlier in the week that allows the justice minister to unilaterally replace the chief justices of the common courts.
However, Duda surprised many in the government when he vetoed a bill that would have reinforced political control over the Supreme Court and another allowing parliament to choose members of a body designed to protect the independence of the courts.
The ruling Law and Justice party nonetheless vowed to push ahead with all the reforms despite the vetoes.
European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans on Wednesday warned of even more severe action if Supreme Court justices are sacked.
"If such a measure is taken the commission is ready to immediately trigger the Article 7 procedure," Timmermans said Wednesday.
Article 7 is a never-before-used EU process designed to uphold the rule of law, a so-called "nuclear option" that can freeze a country's right to vote in meetings of EU ministers.
The legal reforms have triggered mass street protests in Poland and raised fears for the rule of law in one of the EU's leading eastern former communist states.
Brussels and Warsaw have been at loggerheads over the legal changes ever since the right-wing PiS took power in 2015 and announced reforms to Poland's constitutional court.