poljska sabor.jpg
Photograph: EPA/PAWEL SUPERNAK

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo on Tuesday defended her government's controversial judicial and media reforms, which are being investigated for a possible breach of EU values, in a debate with EU lawmakers.

Poland's conservative government, which took office in November, has come under fire for several measures that critics say are designed to strengthen its grip on the constitutional court and public broadcasters.

Last week, the European Commission launched an inquiry into the reforms, using an unprecedented mechanism aimed at protecting the EU's fundamental values.

The dispute has raised tensions between Warsaw and its European partners at a time when unity is needed within the 28-member EU to address a host of challenges, including the bloc's migration crisis.

"Sometimes in Poland we hear voices that hurt, voices which are unfair, unjust towards Poland and the Polish government," Szydlo told the European Parliament's plenary session, in the French city of Strasbourg.

Poland is built on "freedom, equality, justice and sovereignty," she said, adding that her government wanted to build a country that is the "mirror image" of the EU. "For centuries, Poland has believed in the rule of law," Szydlo stressed.

The constitutional court reforms - replacing some of its judges and changing the voting laws - were necessary to remedy unconstitutional decisions by the outgoing government, Szydlo said, adding that the dispute this had generated was a purely domestic political issue.

She also justified the media reform, which has given her government a greater say over top appointments to the public television and radio stations, arguing that the aim is to turn them into "truly public broadcasters."

"No legal standards have been breached and the objective is objectivity in reporting," the premier said.

But Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said the reforms appeared to threaten fundamental EU values, adding that the initial replies received from the Polish government "were not sufficient to dispel our concerns."

He said that the commission had received another letter from Warsaw earlier Tuesday, sent following the launch of its inquiry. The reply would be assessed "in a cooperative and constructive manner," Timmermans added.

"Membership in our union does not only entail benefits but also responsibilities," Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders told the plenary session, citing respect for the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights. His country holds the rotating EU presidency.

These values "cannot be taken for granted," Koenders warned, noting that Europe had brought forth the "most deadly and venomous political doctrines we know," and had since vowed not to return to those dark days.

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