22nd Oct 2016

Romania defies European Commission and weakens court

Romania’s parliament passed a law on Wednesday (18 July) limiting the jurisdiction of its constitutional court in an apparent contradiction to promises made to the European Commission by Romania’s prime minister Victor Ponta just a few days before.

Speaking to EUobserver on Thursday, commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde said “if limitations are being made now, we must look at it.”

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  • Romania's parliament passed a law on Wednesday that limits the jurisdiction of the constitutional court (Photo: Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Ahrenkilde said the Commission had previously been given promises that Romania would abrogate decrees limiting the court’s competences and had been satisfied with Ponta’s lettered commitments.

The court saw its powers to review decisions passed by parliament revoked on 4 July in a decision that was published and passed into law on the same day, causing concern in Brussels. Romania's action, said the Commission, was contrary to its own constitution.

But Ponta assured European Commission chief Barroso during a telephone conversation and subsequent letter that he would review the decision and respect the rule of law.

Romania’s parliament then voted through a new decree just hours after Barroso warned the country to stop undermining the court's jurisdiction.

The new law allows the court no jurisdiction over the internal decisions of the parliament. This means that the recent sacking of Senate and lower chamber chairpersons can no longer be challenged in court. The sacking of the ombudsman - strongly criticised by Brussels - can also not be challenged.

The chair of Romania’s chamber of deputies, Valeriu Zgonea, told this website that the new law respects Ponta’s promise. “The new law does not attack the heart of the constitutional court in anyway,” said Zgonea.

He explained that the constitutional court had itself recommended that it should not rule on the internal decisions of the parliament. “What we have done is copy-pasted the courts recommendations into the new law. In my opinion, the new law is constitutional,” he said.

Romania’s ombudsman is empowered to conduct investigations on alleged illegal acts of the administration. As an independent body, it must report to the parliament or the prime minister if it discloses cases of “grave corruption” during its investigations.

The ombudsman is the only institution that can directly challenge government ordinances in front of the constitutional court.

Ponta’s government had prematurely ended the mandate of the ombudsman on 3 July. A day later, Ponta’s parliamentary majority submitted a 17-page document that claimed the president, a long-time rival, had violated the constitution and should be removed from office.

It is up to the constitutional court to decide on whether or not there is enough evidence in the case to warrant a presidential impeachment.

On 5 July, the court decided that the allegations levied against the president by Ponta’s parliamentary majority did not clearly warrant impeachment. Ponta claimed the court was biased and then put the issue to parliament anyway, which voted in favour of impeachment.

The European Commission, for its part, has recommended that Romania repeal its emergency ordinances and ensure the constitutional court rulings on the quorum for a referendum are sustained. It also wants Romania to ensure the entire scope of the court’s responsibilities are respected.

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