Prime Minister Beata Szydlo described the events in the Parliament — where a bitter debate preceded the vote — as "scandalous." The Foreign Ministry called the resolution a "political instrument of pressure on Poland," describing the document as "one-sided" and saying it was based on political considerations and not on legal analysis.
In a resolution adopted by 438 to 152, with 71 abstentions, the European lawmakers triggered the first stage of a so-called rule-of-law procedure against the Polish government on Wednesday. The procedure could lead to the suspensions of Poland's EU voting rights.
The assembly's Civil Liberties Committee must now draw up a legal proposal to formally request that the mechanism — known as Article 7 — be activated due to a "clear risk of a serious breach" of EU values.
The EU's executive, the Commission, has already launched a procedure of its own amid concerns that new laws in Poland undermine judicial independence and the rule of law. The vote came after a heated debate that exposed the bitter feelings between European officials trying to keep Poland on a democratic course and Polish officials who argue the ruling party has a democratic mandate to change its own country's court system and that Brussels has no right to interfere in the affairs of sovereign nations.
Ryszard Legutko, a member of Poland's ruling party, accused the EU of waging an illegal "crusade against Poland." He also accused the German media, which have criticized Poland's direction, of holding an "anti-Polish orgy."
In turn, others sharply criticized Poland's government, with the parliament's liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt saying the Polish government "has lost its senses." Gianni Pittella, leader of an alliance of Socialists and Democrats, accused Warsaw of showing "scorn for liberal democracy."
Several also criticized a march of 60,000 people in Warsaw that was organized by extremist far-right groups and included racist banners and slogans on Poland's Independence Day on Saturday. Poland's president sharply condemned the expressions of extremism, but the government leaders have praised the event as a celebration of Polish patriots.
Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the European Commission, said that some of "most terrible parts of European history" were "seen on the streets of Warsaw." The parliament's resolution called on Poland to act on several points, including to strongly condemn what it called a "xenophobic and fascist march."
Janusz Lewandowski, a member of Poland's opposition Civic Platform party, sharply criticized the ruling party on several points, saying it was "committing abuse of power" and tolerating "racism, xenophobia and neo-fascism on Poland's streets." His words drew an angry retort from Legukto.
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said Poland was "shocked" by the language of the debate, saying it qualified as "hate speech" at times; and the prime minister, Szydlo, said "politicians who defame their country in an international forum do not deserve to represent it."
Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.