WARSAW (AFP) - Tens of thousands of Poles rallied on Sunday (Oct 10) in defence of their country's EU membership, after Poland's top court last week issued a landmark ruling against the primacy of EU law.
The pro-EU demonstrations were called by former EU chief Donald Tusk, now leader of the country's main opposition grouping, Civic Platform, who has warned of the prospect of a "Polexit".
"Tens of thousands of people in Warsaw and in over 100 cities and towns across Poland have come to protest what this government is doing to our homeland," Tusk told a massive crowd in the capital awash with the EU's star-studded blue flags.
Tusk asked people to "defend a European Poland" after a wave of criticism against the ruling both at home and from around the European Union.
Membership of the bloc remains very popular according to opinion polls but relations between Warsaw and Brussels have become strained since the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in 2015.
The main bone of contention is a wide-ranging reform of the judiciary wanted by PiS, which the European Union fears will undermine judicial independence and roll back democratic freedoms.
The latest twist in the long-running dispute was the ruling on Thursday from Poland's Constitutional Court, a body which government opponents say is stacked with PiS allies and therefore illegitimate.
The ruling challenged the primacy of EU law over Polish law in all cases by declaring key articles in the EU treaties "incompatible" with the Polish constitution.
The court also warned EU institutions not to "act beyond the scope of their competences" by interfering with Poland's judicial reforms.
"I'm here because I'm afraid we'll leave the EU. It is very important, especially for my granddaughter," Warsaw resident Elzbieta Morawska, 64, told AFP.
"Britain has just left the EU and it's a tragedy, if Poland leaves now, it'll also be a tragedy," Aleksander Winiarski, 20, a Pole studying in England, told AFP at the Warsaw rally.
"This government has overstepped all boundaries - this is a mafia state," Beata, a 40-year-old manager in a Warsaw media company who declined to reveal her family name, told AFP.
Protesters lit up a central square with their mobile phones, sang the national anthem and chanted "We're staying!"
Brussels warned ahead of the court judgment that the case could have "consequences" for EU pandemic recovery grants and cheap loans for Poland.
Analysts have called the ruling a "legal Polexit", saying that it could pave the way for Poland one day leaving the European Union.
The government has ruled out the prospect, however.
A day after the ruling, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that the process of Poland joining the EU in 2004 was "one of the highlights of the last decades" for both Poland and the EU.
"Poland's place is and will be in the European family of nations," he wrote on Facebook.
He said the principle of the superiority of constitutional law over EU law had already been stated by courts in other EU member states.
"We have the same rights as other countries. We want these rights to be respected. We are not an uninvited guest in the European Union. And that's why we don't agree to be treated as a second-class country," Morawiecki wrote.
The government has to make a decision to officially publish the ruling for it to have legal force.
Experts have said that it may move cautiously in order not to imperil EU funding and to avoid potential legal confusion as Polish courts could choose whether to apply Polish or EU law.