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Poland's President Andrzej Duda speaks during his media announcement about Supreme Court legislation at Presidential Palace in Warsaw, Poland, July 24, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

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By Jan Strupczewski

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The EU's executive will on Wednesday threaten Poland with rapid legal consequences if it begins dismissing judges under powers created in a judicial reform.

Polish President Andrzej Duda on Tuesday ratified a bill giving the justice minister the power to hire and fire the senior judges who head ordinary courts as part of the Law and Justice (PiS) party's flagship policy.

The nationalist, eurosceptic PiS says the powers are needed to streamline a slow and outdated legal system and make judges more accountable to the people.

Critics say they will damage the independence of the judiciary, which is enshrined in the Polish constitution. They point to other PiS measures to increase government control over prosecutors, state media and the Constitutional Tribunal.

The European Commission has already mounted an unprecedented review of the rule of law in Poland. The prospect of politicians firing and replacing judges has now prompted it to come close to triggering an "Article 7" censure process ahead of Wednesday's Commission meeting, one EU official said.

"For us the ultimate aim is to stop the firing of judges," said the official, who declined to be named.

"Tomorrow there will be a supplementary rule of law recommendation to account for the latest developments, obviously with clear deadlines for Poland to submit replies or change the laws. If they don't react, then we have no choice but to launch Article 7."

Article 7 is designed to punish a member state that refuses to respect the bloc's common law and values. The Commission argues that this covers not providing citizens with access to a court that is independent of politicians.

For a censure motion to pass, four-fifths of EU countries, or 22 of the 27 that would vote, would have to agree that there was a clear risk of a serious breach of respect for human rights or dignity, freedom, democracy, equality or the rule of law.

"RED LINE"

Such a motion would send a political signal, albeit with few practical consequences. Sources in Brussels say the Commission is consulting EU capitals to build up the necessary majority, possibly for an EU ministers' meeting on Sept. 19.

"If mass firing of judges starts, then a red line is crossed where all dialogue will need to be declared as failed," the official said.

There is also a possibility that Poland could eventually be stripped of its voting rights in the EU under Article 7, although that requires unanimity from the 27 states, something that Hungary has already made clear it would prevent.

While ratifying one bill, Duda has also vetoed two others giving the government and parliament power to replace Supreme Court judges, saying he will propose changes within two months.

But the Commission wants to see whether the changes are substantive, and whether the PiS government accepts them or tried to overturn the vetoes with an increased parliamentary majority.

Meanwhile, it is likely on Wednesday to empower its president, Jean-Claude Juncker, or First Vice-President Frans Timmermans to launch legal cases against Poland should judges be sacked or the presidential vetoes overturned.

"On Wednesday, we can have a decision in principle with an empowerment for enforcement ... so you can launch the infringement with an hour if the veto were to be reversed," the official said.

In infringement proceedings, the Commission does not need the backing of other EU governments as in the Article 7 procedure, but can sue a EU government in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for breaking EU laws.

If the ECJ were then to rule against Poland, Warsaw could face hefty daily financial penalties for not complying. In 2012, the Commission won a similar case against Hungary, whose government was trying to force out judges through early retirement.

"We want to be ready, legally on sound ground, if anything more were to happen," the official said.

(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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