The European Commission has decided to investigate Poland over concerns that recent constitutional court reforms are in breach of fundamental EU values, Vice President Frans Timmermans said Wednesday.
It is the first time that the institution resorts to an EU mechanism aimed at preventing serious threats to the rule of law.
It allows the commission to analyze the situation in a member state and draw up recommendations. In the case of non-compliance, Poland could ultimately face a suspension of voting rights in the EU.
The EU's executive will carry out a "preliminary assessment" of the Polish reforms and hopes for a dialogue with Warsaw, Timmermans said.
"Binding rulings of the constitutional tribunal are currently not respected" by the Polish state, Timmermans noted, calling this a "serious matter."
Timmermans will now send a letter to Warsaw to launch the dialogue, the commission said.
Poland's new conservative government has been criticized over a law giving it the power to appoint executives at public broadcasters, as well as the constitutional court reforms, which critics say strengthen the influence of the governing Law and Justice Party.
The issue has raised tensions between Warsaw and its European partners, at a time when unity is needed within the 28-member EU to confront the bloc's migration crisis among other challenges.
Timmermans had already written to Warsaw requesting information on the new media law and expressing concern over the constitutional court reforms. Poland responded to both, firmly defending its actions.
Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro asked Timmermans to "exercise more restraint" and criticized him for a "lack of knowledge" about the court reforms, arguing that they sought to redress a previous bias in the system, in a response dated January 11.
On Tuesday, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke by phone to Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.
He assured her during the 45-minute conversation that the commission's discussions are "routine procedure" to better understand the country's reforms, Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told broadcaster TVN24.
Szydlo vowed on Tuesday not to back down from the government's reform course.
"We will not give up on the repair of the state," she said in a televised address to the TVP public broadcaster.