Brussels (AFP) - The European Union launched an unprecedented probe on Wednesday into controversial legal changes introduced by Poland's new right-wing government to see if they violate EU democracy rules and merit punitive measures.
The move comes amid growing concern over reforms to Poland's constitutional court and increased control over state media adopted by the conservative, eurosceptic Law and Justice party (PiS), which swept to power in October.
"Today we have decided that the Commission will carry out a preliminary assessment on this matter under the rule of law framework," European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said after a special debate on the issue.
"The rule of law is one of our fundamental values," he said.
Timmermans said rulings by Poland's constitutional court were not being respected by the new government. He said he was concerned too about the new media laws in Poland which critics claim curb freedom of expression, another key EU value.
The EU will review Poland's answers by March.
Polish Prime Minister Prime Minister Beata Szydlo downplayed the EU investigation.
"I'm very happy about the ongoing dialogue (with the European Commission) and I invite each and every one of the (European) commissioners to Poland for discussions and to become better acquainted," Szydlo told reporters in Warsaw in reaction to the probe.
She earlier told parliament that Poland had been "unfairly accused of things that don't exist in our country" and insisted that the rule of law was alive and well in her country.
Polish President Andrzej Duda last week signed into law a bill allowing the government to appoint and sack senior figures in public radio.
The changes to the constitutional court sparked mass protests and opposition complaints that they threatened judicial independence.
- Rule of law -
Brussels introduced the "rule of law" mechanism in 2014, giving the 28-nation bloc the right to investigate and if necessary punish any member state which violates key EU democratic and rights norms.
If found at fault, a country can be stripped of its EU voting rights -- the so-called "nuclear option" -- but the rule of law procedure has not been used before and officials say they hope it does not come to that.
Initial reaction was mixed to the EU investigation.
"It's good that this is taking the path of institutional dialogue rather than the war of words we've seen recently," Michal Baranowski, head of the Warsaw branch of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told AFP.
"It will help both sides really understand what the other is saying."
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament, took a harder line, saying the probe sent "a clear message" to any member state tempted to bend the rules.
The European Parliament is set to debate the Polish situation on January 19.
The investigation threatens to inflame already tense relations with Poland and other eastern European countries such as Hungary who resent what they see as Brussels' interference.
Harsh words from Brussels have been matched by tough rhetoric in Warsaw, with a Polish magazine depicting EU leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Nazi uniforms.
The split is the latest in an EU sharply divided by a host of problems ranging from Greece's near eurozone exit to the continent's biggest migration crisis since World War II.
Poland's new government stands in sharp contrast to its predecessor which won friends in high places in Brussels, culminating in the appointment of former centrist Polish premier Donald Tusk to head the European Council of the 28 EU leaders.