Commission blasts Romania over judicial independence
By Anca Gurzu and Nathalie Vandystadt | Wednesday 18 July 2012
The European Commission has unmistakably condemned the Romanian government’s recent actions, which it believes may jeopardise respect for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in the country. In a much-awaited report, released on 18 July, the Commission warns in so many words that tinkering with democratic checks and balances can impact the reforms already underway.
The recent political events in Romania “have shaken our trust” in the country’s commitment to European values and principles, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso told reporters in Brussels, on 18 July. Political strife cannot justify undermining these values, he added.
The report is based on a special EU programme called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) that was set up after Romania and Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in 2007 in an effort to tackle remaining weaknesses in the areas of judicial reform and the fight against corruption. While democracy promotion through conditionality is one of the EU’s strongest ‘carrot-stick’ tools, the CVM is uncommon since it applies to two countries that are already part of the club. In fact, the Commission is using the damning conclusions of the report as a ‘stick’ to warn Bucharest to mend its ways.
The recent events “raised serious doubts about the commitment to the respect of the rule of law or the understanding of the meaning of the rule of law in a pluralist democratic system,” the document reads.
The report comes amid an ongoing political crisis in Romania over the centre-left government’s bid to impeach centre-right President Trajan Basescu. Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who took power in May, used his parliamentary majority earlier this month to unseat Basescu, accusing him of overstepping his powers. The prime minister then swiftly passed new referendum rules that abolished a law calling for a majority of registered citizens to attend the polls for the vote to be valid. He also ignored the country’s Supreme Court verdict that the moves were unconstitutional.
“The Commission is in particular extremely concerned by the indications of manipulations and threats which affect institutions, members of the judiciary, and eventually have a serious impact on society as a whole,” the report reads. It also notes the country’s recent reform progress, including the creation of a national anti-corruption strategy, the “gradual increasing independence” of the judiciary and improvement in the way prosecution works. However, many of the remaining problems are rooted in the implementation of the existing framework.
The CVM “has helped to maintain the direction of reform at moments of pressure and to encourage changes which require the courage to challenge vested interests,” the report reads. “The fact that external pressure is still necessary raises questions about the sustainability and irreversibility of reforms, questions accentuated by current events.”
The developments in Romania, coupled with the message of the report, raise serious questions about the Eastern European country’s future prospects of joining the Schengen area. In a radio interview, on 18 July, interim centre-left President Crin Antonescu conceded that Romania is not likely to adhere to Schengen anytime soon, but argued this political opposition had existed before the centre-left government came to power and is not connected with the impeachment of the president.
Morever, Antonescu argued that the Commission has overstepped its role, since the report includes political elements that go beyond the stated goals of the verification mechanism.
The Commission’s harsh conclusions come just a few days after EU officials communicated their concerns to Victor Ponta directly during his visit to Brussels. The Commission had presented Ponta with a list of 11 points Bucharest would have to meet to fall back in line with basic European values. Among others, the list calls for the reinstatement of the powers of the Constitutional Court, the reinstatement of the majority rule concerning referendums and the reappointment of an ombudsman.
After days of mixed political messages, which saw Ponta trying to reassure EU officials in Brussels that his moves do not threaten democratic principles in Romania and Antonescu arguing to the domestic audience that the Commission’s requests infringe on the country’s sovereignty, Bucharest now seems to be signalling its readiness to address the issues.
Despite his critical comments, Antonescu bowed to one of the EU’s requests, on 17 July, when he signed a new law that requires a majority of registered voters to participate in a referendum for it to be valid. Barroso confirmed receipt of a letter from Ponta, in which he commits to address all the EU’s 11 points of concern, including the reinstatement of the powers of the Constitutional Court. Barroso applauded this move.
The Commission will publish another CVM report by the end of the year.
CORRUPTION IN BULGARIA
The case of Bulgaria, subject to the same scheme, was glossed over somewhat. Barroso nevertheless called for “convincing results” against high-level corruption and organised crime. This is the biggest challenge for Sofia, which will also remain under Commission monitoring. Efforts have been made over the last five years, including the creation of risk assessment tools and development of methods to detect conflicts of interest or corruption problems in asset declarations at the highest level of the state. “However, implementation has remained patchy,” reads the report. Very few cases have been brought before the courts.
Results are also “mixed” on combating fraud affecting EU funds made available to the country, even though Sofia set up a special team, in 2012, to prevent this type of abuse.
In spite of an increase in the number of other corruption cases from 2009 to 2010, “case numbers [in court] decreased again in 2011,” denounces the Commission.