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29th May 2022

Romanian PM fails to convince Barroso on anti-corruption measures

  • The Romanian government needs to deal with high-level corruption as a matter of "national importance", Barroso says (Photo: European Commission)

During a short visit to Brussels on Tuesday (30 September), Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu failed to convince European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso that the fight against corruption is on the right track.

After talks with Mr Barroso, Mr Tariceanu tried to avoid mentioning to Romanian journalists the message he had received from the commission concerning the fight against high-level corruption, an area where Romania is still being monitored after accession to the EU.

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"We didn't talk about the co-operation and verification mechanism, only about a rather technical part – the preparatory work for the next peer review mission, which will make the evaluation under this mechanism," Mr Tariceanu told Romanian journalists in Brussels.

Mr Barroso however did make mention of the fight against high-level corruption. The president "encouraged" the Romanian government to treat it "as an issue of national importance", said Mark Gray, spokesperson for the Commission, in a press release following the Tuesday meeting.

Romania and Bulgaria are the only two member states to be monitored after accession due to a lack of progress in the fields of of judicial reform, the fight against corruption and organised crime.

The European Commission established in December 2006 a "co-operation and verification mechanism" with a set of specific criteria ("benchmarks") that aim at helping the countries address these shortcomings. The mechanism is co-ordinated by Catherine Day, the commission's secretary-general, the executive's chief civil servant, who reports directly to Mr Barroso.

The commission issues progress reports every six months, as it did during the country's pre-accession period, with the latest, published on 23 July, noting continued lack of results in the fight against high-level corruption and highlighting the Romanian parliament's resistance to such efforts.

Parliament ignores benchmarks

Mr Barroso also "underlined the need for renewed efforts to implement fully the four benchmarks that Romania agreed at the time of accession," the press release states.

This cryptic wording refers to a recent bill passed by the Romanian Parliament on 16 September that rejects one of the four benchmarks - the need to maintain the country's current nomination and revocation procedure for the Romania's top prosecutors.

The commission promptly replied the next day, stating that its position has been "consistent throughout" and stressing that one of the benchmarks "clearly states that the procedure should not be changed".

If Romania persists in failing to apply all the benchmarks set out in the mechanism, the commission can invoke "a safeguard clause", which would prevent Romanian court rulings from being recognised in the rest of the EU.

Yet the Romanian Premier's statements in Brussels on Tuesday reflected less commitment on this matter, instead only criticising the parliament for having chosen a "bad moment" for the changing of the nomination procedure.

Asked if the Romanian government will resume commitment to the benchmark, Mr Tariceanu replied at the press conference: "Politically it was not the right moment - especially since this mechanism is still in place - for the parliament to come up with a legislative modification that could raise some question marks."

But on the other hand, he explained, there is no European "patent" on the nomination procedure of chief prosecutors, with different countries appointing them in different ways.

Justice minister Predoiu stressed that it was not an initiative of the government, but the parliament. "After all, we have to respect the parliament as well," he said.

Lobby for indicted ministers

Initiated by senator Norica Nicolai, vice-president of the Liberal party premier Tariceanu heads, the bill removed Romania's president from the nomination process, entrusting it solely to the Superior Council of Magistrates at the proposal of the minister of justice.

Senator Peter Eckstein-Kovacs, who voted against the amendments, explained on several occasions to the Romanian media that the law was actually aimed at ousting the chief-prosecutor of the National Anti-corruption Directorate (NAD), Daniel Morar.

Under Mr Morar's leadership, the NAD took up a series of high profile corruption cases, including current or former ministers and even former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase (2000-2004).

All these results were constantly praised by the European Commission in its reports, yet heavily criticised by local politicians.

Claiming that the NAD needed a more "balanced" leadership, justice minister Catalin Predoiu chose not to nominate Mr Morar for another mandate when his first one ran out on 12 August.

But the final call still lies with President Traian Basescu, who can reject the minister's proposal. In the meantime, Mr Morar's mandate has been temporarily extended.

"It is not the point whether Morar comes a better person or not, but when you fire someone who does a good work, you put out a signal to a judiciary already very sensitive to political intervention," Alina Mungiu Pippidi, head of the Romanian Academic Society (SAR), a Bucharest-based think-tank, told the EUObserver.

"We are not discussing hypothetical questions, but people who are currently under indictment, who are protected by the parliament from getting to trial," she explained, "and also we are discussing the reality that you can pass special legislation designated for targeted interest groups."

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