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22nd Sep 2019

EU warns Romania over corruption amnesty

  • Iohannis (r) welcomes Juncker in Bucharest's Controceni palace. He wants to conclude May's Sibiu summit with a political declaration on how the EU will look like after the European elections (Photo: European Commission)

EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday (11 January) warned the Romanian government not to press ahead with a planned law that would grant amnesty for corruption offences, undermining such EU "essentials", such as rule of law.

"It would be a step backwards," Juncker told reporters at a press conference with Romanian president Klaus Iohannis.

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  • Dancila and Juncker greet each other at the beginning of the ceremonial launch of Romania's presidency (Photo: European Commission)

The planned law would decriminalise some forms of corruption and grant an amnesty to offenders.

Juncker also urged Romania's politicians to put aside their differences during the coming six months, when the country takes over the EU's rotating presidency for the first time since it joined the bloc in 2007.

Last year, the commission said in its corruption monitoring report that recent developments in Romania had reversed the course of progress especially on judicial independence, judicial reform and tackling high-level corruption.

As Romania's presidency kicks off, a judicial overhaul in the country has created concerns over the rule of law with echoes to Hungary and Poland, two countries which have also had a run-in with the commission over the judiciary's independence in recent years.

Juncker warned not to interpret the rule of law issues as a schism between eastern and western Europe.

"All of those who claimed there are two blocks in the EU, they are quite wrong, the EU has got to breathe with two lungs," he said in Bucharest after commissioners met with the Romanian government.

He later said at a press conference with prime minister Viorica Dancila, that "we have no problem between Romania and the commission".

For her part, Dancila, a former MEP, replied: "We are committed being honest brokers to promote a more united Europe."

Shedding light on the political differences between himself and Dancila's Socialist-led government, the centre-right, liberal president Iohannis said he hoped the issue would be resolved meeting the expectations of most of Romanians, a majority of whom reject the amnesty plan.

According to an ISSPOL opinion poll conducted last month, 91 percent of Romanians are opposing amnesty and pardon for corruption crimes.

An EU official on condition of anonymity said the Romanian government would "shoot itself in the foot" if it were to adopt a plan to grant amnesty for corruption offences.

"In Romania, we cannot build a justice system that would not be compatible with the other justice systems in the EU," Iohannis told the press conference, adding that Romania joined the EU because to wanted to be part of an "area of values", including rule of law.

He said parties understood that the internal political disputes should not affect the EU presidency.

"My impression is that politicians understood it [the amnesty law] would be a huge problem, not just for the presidency," he told reporters later.

Iohannis admitted that Romania has an image problem, however.

"Fighting corruption brings out the worst of the political class," he said.

Borders

EU officials said they urged their Romanian counterparts that a successful run at the helm of the council could help with convincing reluctant countries, such as the Netherlands, to agree to open the Schengen travel zone to Romania.

Romania and Bulgaria are not part of the passport-free zone and are under a monitoring program to help reinforce their judiciaries.

Juncker said at the press conference that he hoped to see Romania and Bulgarian join Schengen before the end of his mandate in November, but that the issue was up to member states.

Answering a question on how was he trying to convince Dutch premier Mark Rutte and other leaders to allow Romania to join, Juncker said "he [Rutte] knows I do expect him to make progress."

Romania presides over the EU's meetings in an especially crucial time for the EU. Being in charge of the presidency means they would be in a position to shape the agenda and push through legislation before the European elections in May.

Juncker said more than 200 bills awaited decisions by the council and the parliament. "I would like to see most of these brought to a successful end," he urged the Romanians.

One of the key issues was migration, where the commission hoped that the presidency would be able to convince reluctant member states to adopt the five undisputed files out of seven ongoing EU asylum reforms.

Iohannis said any deal on migration was difficult because of the diverging positions of member states which were not moving closer to a compromise, which would not come in the "next weeks".

Sibiu road

With Brexit, talks on the EU's long-term budget and migration weighing on the Romanian presidency, Iohannis looks at a special summit on the EU's future as the key moment for the Romanian leadership.

Iohannis told commissioners gathering in Bucharest's Controceni Palace that the upcoming EU summit in Sibiu will be a landmark for the EU in forging new strategies for after the European elections.

"It will be a good opportunity to reflect together on the future of Europe," Iohannis said.

It will be the first meeting of the EU leaders after the UK's withdrawal from the bloc on 29 March and the last meeting before the European Parliament elections.

Iohannis, who hails from a German-speaking minority in Romania was the mayor of Sibiu, his hometown before his 2014 election to the presidency.

The Sibiu summit, originally planned for the day after Brexit on 30 March, is now slated for Europe Day, 9 May.

Its aim is to conclude the years of internal EU soul-searching prompted by the UK referendum that was disrupted by deep differences over migration, the euro, and a surging populist and nationalist sentiment in Europe.

Juncker said the Sibiu summit will be a "meeting of stability".

"After the UK leaves, it is important to show ourselves and to the world that the EU is not coming to end, but initiating a new phase in its history, and its history was never completely calm," he added.

The renewed effort to give the EU momentum happens comes the context of rising populism and nationalism.

Iohannis told journalists he wanted to conclude the Sibiu summit with a political declaration on what was possible and feasible for the EU, and how the bloc would look after the European elections.

"We have to come up with a plan for the future ... It is to give assurances to our EU citizens," he said, adding that euroscepticism was a major problem.

"It is heavily promoted by populists politicians, but it is also because the EU does good things but forgets to talks about those," Iohannis told a group of journalists.

"Societies are changing, expectations are changing, people are expecting results now, not next week," the president said, on the new digital media environment, where populism had increasing traction.

"It is not going to help us to mourn the good old days. We have to design the good future days, and that starts with the Sibiu summit," Iohannis said.

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