Monday

19th Feb 2018

'Crucial moment' for Romania as MEPs debate judiciary

  • Commissioner Jourova said the EU executive is open for dialogue with the Romanian government (Photo: European Parliament)

EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova told MEPs on Wednesday (7 February) it was a "crucial moment" for Romania, as the country's parliament is deciding on two controversial laws concerning the judiciary which have been deemed unconstitutional.

"The European Commission considers it is still is possible for the laws to be improved, become good laws and strengthen the independence and professionalisation of the judicial system," Jourova told MEPs in the evening debate.

  • Tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated against the laws in Romania (Photo: Reuters)

"This is a crucial moment now that the first two draft laws are back in the parliament following the rulings of the constitutional court," she added.

Romania was the latest country whose controversial reforms of the judiciary were discussed by MEPs after the commission last month rang alarm bells over laws that critics say weaken the country's anti-corruption drive, risks putting the judiciary under political control and keeps ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) politicians shielded from prosecution.

The new amendments were passed last December and are under review by the country's top court which ruled parts of the controversial reforms unconstitutional.

Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker warned that if Romania does not amend these laws, it could risk losing its chance to become a member of the passport-free Schengen zone.

Juncker has previously said he wanted both Romania and Bulgaria – which joined the EU in 2007, but was not allowed to join the Schengen zone due to concerns over corruption and the judiciary – to become Schengen members by 2019.

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

Jourova urged Romania's government to "rethink the course of action proposed, to open up the debate, to build a consensus on the way forward and safeguard the independence of the judiciary and step up the fight against corruption".

The commissioner praised Romania's earlier judicial reforms and anti-corruption drive.

"Romania has been running a marathon. The finish line is in sight ... to step backwards would be a major disappointment for the many friends of Romania and Romanian citizens," she said.

Family affair

Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola of the European People's Party (EPP), herself an anti-corruption campaigner, said Romanians deserve a country where rule of law is respected.

"We have seen attempts by the government to suppress the judiciary, to water down anticorruption legislation, and to use its electoral majority as an excuse to do it pleases," she said.

"The EU cannot look away, the EPP will not," she said, prompting shouts and laughter in the plenary chamber, as the EPP is a staunch defender of Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, who has cracked down on the media and the judiciary in his own country.

Metsola recalled that the issue is not only about Romania, as what happens in one member state effects all EU countries.

The Socialists & Democrats group, where the Romanian ruling party is a member, tip-toed around the issue and defended their political family.

MEP Josef Weidenholzer said: "We have been assured by the fact that the ongoing reforms are fully in line with the rule of law and European values. The political stability of eastern Europe is crucial."

Poland's nationalist ruling party – whose own judicial reforms have been deemed a systematic threat to the rule of law – stepped up to defend Romania's socialists.

"Commissioner Jourova should not appearing here as a professor, dishing out lessons to a democratically-elected government in Romania, that is not how the EU should work" MEP Kosma Zlotowski of Poland's Law and Justice party said.

"If society is not happy with what is happening, they will be able to hold the government accountable at the next elections," he added.

MEP Victor Bostinaru of Romania's ruling party argued that Jourova is not pointing out any specific paragraph in her criticism, and claimed that there have been abuses carried out by Romania's anti-corruption directorate.

PM 'missing' row

MEP Dan Nica from Romania's ruling party argued at the beginning of the debate that while the new prime minister, ex-MEP Viorica Dancila could not be in Strasbourg, the country's justice minister should be able to address MEPs.

Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld recalled that the leaders of the parliament's political parties along with the parliament president decided to invite the Romanian PM for the debate, and listen to the minister in the civil liberties committee.

"In this kind of debate we invite prime minister, but the PM could not be here today. We should not change the rules and the traditions on the spot," she said.

Poland shows no sign of concessions to Commission

While the dialogue between Warsaw and the Commission has improved since new prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki entered office, there is no sign of compromise over rule of law concerns - as the clock ticks towards a March deadline.

MPs demand Council become more transparent

Three Dutch MPs, on behalf of 26 national parliamentary chambers across the EU, are demanding more transparency. 'The Eurogroup is the most opaque of them all,' complained Dutch MP Omtzigt.

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