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25th Jul 2021

Romania faces rule of law criticism in EU parliament

  • Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans meeting Romania's premier Viorica Dancila in March in Bucharest (Photo: European Commission)

European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans has warned Romania's government that it might end up in court if it does reverse judicial reforms that he said undermined the fight against corruption in the country.

Timmermans made the critical comments on Monday (1 October) at the civil liberties committee in the European Parliament ahead of a plenary debate on Romania's rule of law on Wednesday (3 October) with Romanian prime minister Viorica Dancila.

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The Dutch politician in charge of EU rule of law issues said recent legislation risks turning back the progress made on corruption and urged the ruling Social Democrat party (PSD) to rethink three laws on the judiciary.

"We are all aware the initiatives taken by Romanian authorities since 2017 as regards to the reform justice laws, the criminal procedure and criminal codes and the processes regarding the judiciary have led to concerns from a wide range of stakeholders both inside Romania and internationally," he told MEPs.

"Many Romanians are worried that the proposed changes to these laws may undermine the longstanding efforts to fight against corruption and independence of the judiciary, and these concerns are shared by the European Commission," Timmermans said adding that the commission will not hesitate to take Romania to court if it violates EU rules.

The Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Strasbourg-based watchdog, the Council of Europe, will soon publish its final opinion on controversial laws and make recommendations for amendments. Romania's constitutional court is also to debate the legislation in October.

Critics say Romania's efforts in the last two years to revamp the judiciary is an attempt to put the courts under political control, halt the anti-corruption drive, and shield politicians from corruption charges.

Timmermans also told MEPs that the procedure to dismiss the chief prosecutor of the anti-corruption prosecution, after Romania's constitutional court forced president Klaus Iohannis to fire the prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, in the summer raised questions.

Timmermans added that violence by secret services and police during anti-government demonstrations in Bucharest in August needs to be investigated and should not be repeated.

Romania's justice system has been under monitoring by the commission since 2007 when the country joined the bloc. Timmermans said that the 2018 report, expected to be released in November, will reflect that "the situation has deteriorated".

PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who is barred from serving as prime minister due to a suspended sentence for elections fraud but is considered the de facto leader of the country, said on Monday night that Timmermans comments were "brutal".

"I have to admit I am very disappointed at this attitude because I have never imagined that an EU member country would be threatened this way, so brutally," he said.

Dragnea was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in a second corruption case in July.

The government argues the amendments are necessary due to what it says is an abuse of power by the prosecutors.

Backyard

Romania, which is to take over the EU presidency in January, is the latest eastern European country after Hungary and Poland, to be featured on a plenary debate because of concerns over its rule of law.

Paul Ivan, a senior policy analyst with the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank said the reform of the justice laws doesn't go as far as in Poland.

But that "the changes proposed clearly would lead to a stronger level of political control over the justice system, and diminishing the power of the president".

The second largest group in the EP, S&D has been reluctant to criticise the Romanian PSD publicly.

Last month, when MEPs launched the Article 7 censure probe against Hungary, the centre-right European People's Party, embarrassed by its member, Hungary's ruling Fidesz's increasingly far-right stance, called on the Socialist and Democrats group to deal with their unruly, Romanian member.

In September, Socialists MEPs held a meeting with prime minister Dancila, herself a former MEP, and criticised the referendum scheduled for 6 and 7 October that will effectively ban legalising same-sex marriages in the constitution, which would go against the group's progressive stance.

At the meeting, Dancila claimed that PSD is not behind the referendum drive, which is false, as it is paying for advertisements and actively campaigns, said Paul Ivan.

He said part of the reason for S&D's silence is that with its 13 MEPs the Romanian delegation is considered to be a very big component of the group, which has been losing elections and support in many EU countries.

"It is quite extraordinary that on this issue of sexual minority rights that we have a member party of the S&D that is the main political party pushing for this referendum, to stop the possibility of legalising gay marriage in the future, and at the same time we have seen very little reaction from the group," he told EUobserver.

He added that both EPP and S&D are engaged in a game of 'whataboutism', pointing fingers at each other, rather than taking a principled stance.

Dragnea survived a leadership challenge last month in Romania, but even those who disagree with him from his ranks, disagree with the EU's actions.

Ivan Catalin Sorin, an MEP who four years ago won his seat as a PSD candidate, but now is an independent MEP, said: "I am in total disagreement with party chairman Dragnea on what happens in the Romanian parliament and the party.

"But it is an internal political fight in Romania and I would never support a strong position against Romania in Brussels, there is no reason for that," he said, claiming that Dragnea suspended internal democracy in the party, and only the loyalists have the chance take up positions.

He said he is "not sure if Timmermans is right" about the three legislations and said there is a need for more dialogue, analysis and a permanent mechanism that screens all EU countries' rule of law.

Presidency coming

Paul Ivan said while some in Romania's ruling party want to avoid conflict with the EU, Dragnea increasingly uses an anti-European, nationalist discourse, including instrumentalising the issue of family in the referendum "as a way to oppose the view from the EU".

Romania's push for judicial changes are less about ideology and more about high-level politicians wanting to avoid jail time, Ivan said, highlighting the main difference between Poland's controversial judicial overhaul and Romanian government's actions.

"It is less about a political program or a certain ideology," he said, adding that the rhetoric of nationalist and sovereign-ist discourse can sound similar to that of Poland and Hungary, which also clashed with the commission.

And even though the country is preparing to take over the EU presidency, Ivan sees no sign of de-escalation in the next months.

"We are seeing an increase of this conflict with the EU commission," he said.

EU commission plans bolstering rule of law toolbox

As EU concerns over rule of law in some member states grow, the commission opens a debate on tools to discipline unruly member states. The EU executive has launched a new probe against Poland, and put Romania on the spot.

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