Romania: Will strong words be enough?
By Honor Mahony
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has condemned the Romanian government for undermining trust in the rule of law but the strong words belie the fact that Brussels has few enforcing powers in this area.
"In every member state of the European Union we need a well-functioning judicial system and respect for democratic institutions and the rule of law. Events in Romania have shaken our trust," Barroso said Wednesday (18 July).
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One commissioner has admitted to being "shocked" by the cavalier attitude of Romanian politicians when explaining to EU officials the role of the country's highest court.
In recent weeks, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, a social democrat, has ignored the rulings of the constitutional court, fired the ombudsman and moved to impeach the president.
Brussels responded by demanding Ponta implement an 11-point to-do list to restore proper rule of law to the country.
Ponta acquiesced in a letter but the commission is now waiting to see if he follows through on his promises.
The commission has few weapons in its armoury, however.
Romania, like Bulgaria, has been under extra political surveillance since it joined the EU five years ago. Progress in the two countries' fight against corruption is summarised in an annual report.
Each year the EU grumbles about the number of reforms that still need to be carried out. But while the reports always make the headlines in the countries, EU officials admit they have little leverage over countries once they are member states.
Compliance with the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism is a political exercise. The commission cannot bring Romania to court for ignoring it.
Similarly, Ponta's compliance with the commission's wishes will be set out in a detailed, but political, report at the end of the year.
At the other end of the scale is the possibility to suspend Romania's voting rights. Usually referred to as the 'nuclear option', Article 7 remains an untested part of the Lisbon Treaty. There is reluctance to use it because it is such as powerful sanction.
Justice commissioner Viviane Reding mentioned the possibility to her colleagues during Wednesday's discussion on Romania noting that if the report fails to bring about concrete changes, Article 7 is the only option left.
This is the second time the EU finds itself discussing a member states' apparent abuse of democracy this year. Hungary was strongly criticised in Spring for introducing laws that undermined the judiciary.
Possible use of article 7 was raised then too. But one member state diplomat remarked at the time: "This is not a weapon to use too early, otherwise what is left?"
The same diplomat also noted the difficulty in getting consensus on the issue. National politicians are conscious that opening scrutiny of one country could lead to unwanted scrutiny of their own domestic foibles.
The commission tends to muddle through.
During the height of Brussels' spat with Hungary, Reding and her digital agenda colleague Neelie Kroes complained publicly about media law and the organisation of the judiciary in Hungary. These are both areas where the EU has no powers.
In Romania's case it is hoping that ordinary citizens' fatigue with corruption and a wish to join the EU's passport-free zone - technically not linked but now politically entwined - will be enough to persuade Ponta's government to move in the direction the commission wants.