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17th Apr 2021

Romania's judicial overhaul risks Schengen hopes, Juncker warns

  • Juncker (r) welcomed Iohannis (l) in Brussels, both concerned about the recent legslation passed by parliament (Photo: European Commission)

The EU executive's chief warned the Romanian government on Wednesday to change its latest laws on the judiciary - or risk continuing the EU's current judicial oversight, and having the eastern European country's future Schengen membership put in doubt.

Jean-Claude Juncker said if the parliament in Bucharest did not amend current legislation on the judiciary, it could be putting its Schengen passport-free future at risk.

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"If Romanian legislation were to remain what was foreseen by parliament, then getting rid of the CVM [cooperation and verification mechanism] and the accession of Romania to Schengen membership would be looked at completely different [ie negative] terms," Juncker warned Wednesday (31 January), at a joint press conference with Romanian president Klaus Iohannis in Brussels.

Both Romania and Bulgaria have been a part of a EU's judicial oversight, the CVM, since they joined the EU in 2007.

Romania's president Klaus Iohannis was in Brussels on Wednesday, just a week after the EU executive issued a warning to the country's leftwing government to change laws that would roll back rules on corruption and shield politicians from prosecution.

Tens of thousands of Romanians took to the streets in recent weeks to protest against the legislation.

The fresh warning from Juncker comes after Romania's top court ruled Tuesday (30 January) that parts of the controversial reforms were unconstitutional and needed to be modified.

Juncker himself expressed trust in Romania's judicial system and called for amending the laws based on the court's decision.

"The judicial system is independent and functional, and we cannot say this about all member states," he quipped, adding the constitutional court's decision proves the judicial system works.

Juncker praised Romania, saying the country has made a remarkable progress on rule of law since its accession, and that path should be irreversible.

"I'm sure we can have a friendly, civilised dialogue with the Romanian government in order to resolve these issues," he told reporters.

Third government this year

The country's third government in a year was sworn in on Monday.

The new PM is Viorica Dancila, a former MEP and close ally of the ruling leftwing Social Democrats' leader, Liviu Dragnea.

Dragnea is considered to be the de facto leader of the country, but cannot serve as premier due to a two-year suspended sentence for election fraud.

Centre-right Iohannis said he is confident in the end parliament will take into account the constitutional court's decision and be amended.

"I'm optimistic, we will manage this," he said.

Romania is the latest EU country to trigger rule of law concerns from the EU Commission, following Hungary, Poland and Malta.

Juncker ruled out that the commission would consider using the sanctions procedure – launched recently against Poland – against Romania. In Poland the independence of the judicial system is under threat, in Romania, only specific legislation has rung alarm bells in Brussels.

"The independence of the judicial system is tangible. I will totally involve myself and do everything a president can do to keep things this way," Iohannis pledged.

"Romania is a pro-EU country and it will stay so," Iohannis told reporters, adding that Romania is interested in deeper European integration.

Juncker reiterated his intention to end the cooperation and verification mechanism by the end of his mandate in 2019 and that Romania should join the passport-free Schengen zone by then.

Romania would like the EU to take a decision on Schengen accession this year.

"Romania's natural place is within the Schengen zone," Juncker said.

"It is a question of national dignity. Romanian citizens don't deserve being treated as second class citizens," he said, but added that for him to convince member states to allow the country into the passport-free zone, Romanian justice legislation needs to be in line with EU standards.

Romania will hold the EU's rotating presidency from early 2019 and Iohannis' hometown of Sibiu will give host an EU summit in May 2019, the first 'Europe Day' after Brexit.

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