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24th Feb 2020

Romania mired in corruption woes as presidency begins

  • EU commissioner Frans Timmermans and Romanian prime minister Viorica Dancila in Brussels (Photo: European Commission)

Top officials from Romania's incoming EU presidency on Thursday (10 January) attempted to downplay charges of corruption and unpreparedness ahead of the official launch of their country's takeover of the bloc's rotating leadership role.

State secretary for EU affairs George Ciamba insisted that his country is prepared to lead the bloc's legislative agenda for the next six months - despite recent criticism from EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

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  • Romania's president Klaus Iohannis, a political opponent of the government, and EU commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker last year in Brussels (Photo: European Commission)

"Political infighting you have in any member state, presidency or not, there is not going to be a stop to it. It is not only in Romania, we have to acknowledge the fact that there are European elections coming, and we are going to have politics all over Europe," he said.

Juncker recently told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag that even if the country is "technically well prepared", the "Bucharest government has not fully understood what it means to preside over the countries of the EU".

"I don't see this issue as technical and political. We are prepared," Ciamba said.

Juncker's comments came as Romania's left-wing government has begun to adopt an anti-Brussels rhetoric, previously spearheaded by Hungary and Poland.

The government, led by the Socialist party (PSD), has also meanwhile been rolling out legislation that the commission thinks threaten the rule of law.

Bucharest's government plans to overhaul Romania's judiciary, which it argues is aimed at clamping down on "abuses" by judges, along with a proposals to grant amnesty and pardons for officials sentenced for corruption.

The issue contributed to sparking mass protests last year.

It also saw a political clash with president Klaus Iohannis, who himself said in November that the government was unprepared for the presidency. Iohannis also rejected the government's candidate for new anti-corruption chief.

'Personal issue'?

Meanwhile, the head of the ruling PSD, the de facto leader of the country, Liviu Dragnea also chose to pick another fight with Brussels.

He has filed a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) against the European Commission. The EU's anti-fraud agency, OLAF, has accused him of a scam worth €21m. The lawsuit is against the commission because it oversees OLAF's work.

Dragnea, who has previously been sentenced for election fraud and corruption, barring him from becoming prime minister, denies any wrongdoing.

"In all the democratic systems of law, everybody is innocent until proven guilty. Any citizen, any politician is entitled to do all that is possible to prove his innocence. From that point of view, I don't see anything special," Romania' foreign minister Teodor Melescanu told reporters in Bucharest on Thursday.

"From the point of view of the government, we are doing our job, and what we are talking about is a personal issue," he added.

The issue highlights concerns that after years of successfully fighting corruption, Romania may be backsliding on rule of law, and could join Hungary and Poland as the bete noire of the EU bloc.

A sanctions procedure is already underway against both Poland and Hungary because of issues with rule of law and democratic backsliding.

In the next six months, Romania will be in charge of organising the next steps in the Article 7 sanctions procedure in the council.

The Romanian presidency does not yet have a plan on how to proceed and wants to listen to member states' opinions, officials said.

"Romania made serious efforts in the fight against corruption and in promoting the idea of the rule of law, which is in the interest of the people," the foreign minister said. Nevertheless the same minister recently defended the amnesty plan for politicians, by citing the crowdedness of Romania's prisons.

Brexit under Romania

Besides these concerns over corruption and political infighting, Romania was expected to have a rough ride in any case, as it is the first time the country has held the presidency position since it joined the bloc in 2007.

The country will also oversee Brexit, the first-ever departure of a member state from the bloc, in March, and will then have a struggle to get legislation through the EU machinery before the EU elections in May.

At a special EU summit on 9 May in Sibiu, organised by the Romanian presidency, the bloc will attempt show unity and a renewed confidence after Brexit - not an easy task as member states are deeply divided on several issues.

One of those issues is migration, where Ciamba suggested an agreement over a reformed asylum system could boost support for pro-EU parties at the ballots.

However, the issue has been stuck for several years, mainly over the redistribution of migrants among member states.

A protest was planned during the opening ceremony of the presidency in Bucharest by the Rezistenta, which was behind the protests last year.

Marian Raduna of Rezistenta told journalists that they wanted to show that the majority of Romanians are pro-European and anti-corruption. "Today is our day, when we can send this message to the EU officials," he said.

Romanian PM wades into '€20m fine for journalists' row

Prime minister Viorica Dancila told EUobserver that Romania's constitution guarantees freedom of expression for journalists - but insisted EU data protection rules must be respected. Her comments follow threats to impose a €20m fine on a group of investigative reporters.

EU warns Romania over corruption amnesty

Juncker warned Romania's government not to move ahead with plans to grant amnesty for corruption, as more than 200 EU laws await decisions during Bucharest's presidency.

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