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27th Aug 2016

Romania's political turmoil may hit Schengen bid

Romania's current constitutional turmoil may ultimately result in its longed-for entry into the EU's passport-free zone being delayed still further, the European Commission has warned.

"I am seriously concerned about the rapidly evolving situation," EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding said Wednesday (10 July) in Brussels.

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She said she “would not exclude that pressure will increase on the European Commission to continue its special judicial and anti-corruption monitoring of Romania “for several years.”

The commissioner then referred to “all the consequences member states could draw from this for the development of the Schengen area, for instance, or for the mutual recognition of judgements from courts in Romania.”

The commission has been watching with alarm as the social democrat Romanian prime minister, Victor Ponta, and the centre-right President, Traian Basescu, have been engaging in an increasingly bitter turf war.

The fight came to Brussels' attention at the end of June following a dispute about who was eligible to attend an EU summit. The outcome saw Ponta ignore a ruling of the constitutional court and attend the meeting anyway.

Last week the parliament voted to suspend Basescu for exceeding his powers - a move then upheld by the court and to be decided on in a referendum on 29 July.

Since Ponta came to office in May, he has replaced the speakers of both houses of parliament and the ombudsman with loyalists. Since the summit attendance dispute, he has launched a full attack on the constitutional court.

The political machinations have raised eyebrows in other capitals too.

“Serious violations of the letter and spirit of EU values may raise question about the last steps to Romania's full integration in the EU," Germany's foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said.

Romania and Bulgaria have been kept under special monitoring – known as the cooperation and verification mechanism – since they joined the EU in 2007 in a bid to keep anti-corruption reforms on track. The two were hoping to see the monitoring ended this summer.

The monitoring has become entangled with Romania's hopes to join Schengen, the EU’s borderless area.

The Netherlands alone had blocked Bucharest's bid, causing anger in the commission and other countries for its non-yielding stance.

But the commissioner's words indicate The Hague may now no longer be isolated.

Reding, for her part, was due to discuss the issue with the Romanian justice minister on Wednesday afternoon. Meanwhile Ponta himself travelled to Brussels on Wednesday for meetings with fellow Socialists from the European Parliament. The next day, he is due to meet the heads of the EU commission and European Council.

"I will restate my unswerving commitment to democracy and the rule of law. I will leave them in no doubt as to my determination to uphold the Romanian constitution and European values," he said in a statement ahead of the Brussels trip.

EU commissioners will discuss the Romania situation next week and then "take conclusions."

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