Thursday

17th Jan 2019

EU fires 'warning shots' on Romania's judicial overhaul

  • Earlier mass demonstrations in Romania have forced the government to back down (Photo: Paul Arne Wagner)

The European Commission said on Wednesday (24 January) it was concerned about Romania's overhaul of the judiciary and urged parliament in Bucharest to reconsider judicial reforms.

"The independence of Romania's judicial system and its capacity to fight corruption effectively are essential cornerstones of a strong Romania in the European Union," EU commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and vice president Frans Timmermans said in a joint statement.

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"The commission again warns against backtracking and will look thoroughly at the final amendments to the justice law, the criminal codes and laws on conflict of interest and corruption," they added.

Critics say Romania's latest effort to revamp the judiciary is an attempt to put the courts under political control, halt the anti-corruption drive, and shield politicians from graft cases.

The EU executive has also sent letters spelling out their concerns to the newly designated prime minister Viorica Dancila and to the speakers of the two houses of parliament not to have the new laws enter into force.

The speaker of the lower house is Liviu Dragnea, chairman of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). He is barred from serving as prime minister due to a two-year suspended sentence for election fraud, but he is considered as the de facto leader of the country.

Dragnea is under investigation for embezzling EU funds, and is currently on trial for an abuse-of-office case. He denies wrongdoing.

Juncker and Timmermans' letter is "a warning shot," said an EU source, adding that the commission did not rule out using the rule of law mechanism that was launched against Poland two years ago over the reform of the judiciary.

However, the EU executive thinks it can deal with the concerns more "forcefully" in its annual assessment on Romania's judicial system.

The EU has been monitoring Romania, as well as Bulgaria, since they joined the bloc in 2007.

The letter comes after tens of thousands of Romanians marched through the capital Bucharest last weekend in protest against new laws on the judiciary and criminal code that make it harder to prosecute high-level corruption.

The controversial laws were passed last December and are now being scrutinised by the Constitutional Court.

Paul Ivan, senior policy analyst with the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank, does not expect a turn-around from Bucharest in the wake of the commission's warning.

"It's early, a message of concern is not strong enough to change the situation," Ivan said.

PM-designate Dancila - the third premier to serve this year - is an ally of Liviu Dragnea, and supports the judicial changes.

Higher stakes

By making sure he puts a close colleague in top position, Dragnea demonstrated that he controls the PSD party.

Ivan recalled that in 2012 when the EU commission expressed similar rule of law concerns, then PSD prime minister Victor Ponta eventually backed down.

"This time they [PSD] are more decided to go forward, the stakes are higher, especially for Dragnea," he said.

Ivan added that it is the clear interest of the top of the party to weaken the anti-corruption legislation.

With a weak opposition and a president who respects constitutional limits put on his office, continued mass demonstrations could mean the only real pushback to the Social Democrats efforts.

That was clearly demonstrated early last year when the PSD government first attemted to create rules allowing oliticians to avoid prosecution.

Last January hundreds of thousands on Romania protested after the PSD-dominated parliament passed emergency measures to scrap some anti-corruption rules.

Juncker and Timmermans protested in a statement. Eventually the government backed down, and the premier fell.

Not yet illiberal

Over the past years, Romania's anti-corruption agency has delivered impressive results, with a string of former prime ministers, politicians, officials and business leaders sent to prison.

But that came to a halt with the continued legislative efforts by the government to curtail the powerful agency's reach.

"The reform momentum in the course of 2017 was lost overall," the commission said in its monitoring report last November.

Romania joins the uncomfortable club of eastern European countries of Poland and Hungary, where rule of law concerns have been raised by the commission.

The EU executive has regularly clashed with Hungary over the independence of the judiciary, free press, NGOs, but Budapest - through dialogue and cosmetic legal changes - managed to contain the scolding.

Poland, with the messianic leadership of the Law and Justice party, is less willing to compromise and is the first EU country to face the sanctions procedure Article 7.

Despite the similarities, the measures taken in Romania are still shy of the political control asserted on courts through the judicial reform in Poland, Ivan said.

Moreover, the PSD government's crackdown on anti-corruption has no public support, does not bring votes to the party, but could save its top politicians.

Romania searching for EU respectability

Ten years after its accession and a year before holding the EU presidency, the fastest-growing EU economy wants to "engage" more with its partners. But concerns over the rule of law continue to give the country a bad image.

Romania wants EU signal on Schengen membership

Bucharest expects other member states to decide on its accession to the passport-free area before it takes the rotating EU presidency on 1 January 2019 - amid criticism of a controversial new justice reform.

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