Justice and Home Affairs
Commission urged to monitor situation in Romania
By Nathalie Vandystadt | Thursday 05 July 2012
What is happening in Romania? “A coup d’état?” MEPs Elmar Brok (Germany) and Alain Lamassoure (France), who sit in the Conservative EPP group, raised these questions as the centre-left coalition in office in Bucharest launched, on 4 July, a procedure to remove centre-right President Traian Basescu from office.
“The decisions taken by the Romanian government in the last few days are very disturbing. The European Commission must act now and place the country under monitoring,” urge the two MEPs in a statement, put out on 5 July. During the plenary session, EPP group head Joseph Daul asked the EU executive to “take up this matter” and called on the new Cyprus Presidency of the EU Council to “make sure that this situation does not undermine the important work awaiting us in the coming six months”.
Since early May, Romania has been in a difficult power-sharing relationship with the arrival of the centre-left government of Victor Ponta (USL), following the collapse of the centre-right government on a motion of no-confidence. Basescu, who steered the country into EU membership in January 2007, had already almost been ousted five months after accession, also under fire from the USL. The Romanians confirmed their support for him in a referendum. But with the austerity measures he imposed on the country in 2010, in agreement with the EU and IMF, his popularity has plummeted. Surveys show the USL as the likely winner of the autumn elections.
It is against this backdrop that the centre-left coalition ejected the two Liberal-Democrat (PDL, opposition) presidents of the Senate and Chamber in a vote described as a “coup d’état” by the opposition. Justice Minister Titus Corlatean has challenged a decision by the Constitutional Court that is unfavourable to the government on Romania’s representation in the European Council. But Ponta and the majority are also suspected, by rival MPs and the Constitutional Court, of trying to remove certain Constitutional Court judges from office. The USL has also removed from office the people’s advocate, who can challenge government decisions.
Concerns are therefore starting to emerge, including at the European Commission, especially as Romania, a candidate for admission to the Schengen area, is being monitored by the EU for its progress on justice and the fight against corruption. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said, on 3 July, that she is “very concerned” about the attacks against the independence of the Constitutional Court. Several reputable NGOs, including the Soros Foundation, have mentioned “government pressure on independent voices and institutions”. Similar concerns have been expressed by the US Ambassador to Romania, Mark Gitenstein.
Romania’s press is speaking of a “blitzkrieg” to gain control over the institutions still in the hands of the opposition.
The Commission has not stood idly by. For the last two days, its spokespersons have assured that the situation is being followed “very closely”. The executive’s reaction to the procedure to remove President Basescu from office will “obviously” be expressed in the framework of the European mechanism for monitoring reforms of the justice system and the fight against corruption, which also applies to Bulgaria. The next annual report on the two countries will be published in late July.
This conflict at the highest level in Romania comes at the worst possible time. The member states still have to give the green light on admitting Sofia and Bucharest to the Schengen area. Apart from fierce opposition by the Netherlands, the member states have made their approval conditional on the Commission’s findings, in its next report, of progress in the judicial system and rooting out corruption. The Cyprus Presidency had been counting until now on tangible results during its six months in office.
Seen from the EP, this political situation is reminiscent of another, the case of Hungary, except that the positions are reversed in terms of the government in office, for now at least.
The European right has always opposed the idea of making use of the EU’s ’nuclear weapon’ - Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, under which a member state’s voting rights may be suspended in cases of “serious violation” of European values – against the Hungarian government headed by populist Conservative Viktor Orbán, an EPP member, accused of violating fundamental rights in his country.
Conversely, Brok and Lamassoure have already mentioned its possible use in the Romanian case. “The conclusions of the Commission’s report could lead to use of Article 7”, they state. Daul also called for this matter to be monitored as others before it have been, referring no doubt to infringement proceedings opened by the Commission against Hungary. The EP is drawing up a report on the advisability of using Article 7 against Budapest, as decided at the February plenary.
European Socialists are much more uncomfortable with the Romanian case. S&D group leader Hannes Swoboda considers this “a domestic matter, at least for now”. According to what he has learned, he added, the Romanian situation is not comparable to the case of Hungary.