The hearing - called The Romanian Democracy - Political abuse and citizens' reactions - was opened on 31 January with strong-worded statements by Verhofstadt and Swoboda, the new leader of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament.
The hearing took place after weeks of protests in Romania over an unpopular healthcare reform bill and focused on the state of democracy in Romania under the current government.
“The fact that Verhofstadt showed up and supported them shows that this is something that deserves special attention, the European political groups need the support of the ruling party in Romania,” said a Romanian source in Parliament who asked not to be named.In Romania, the Social-Democrats and Liberals, together with the Conservatives, form a strong opposition to the current ruling party, the centre-right Democratic Liberal party (PDL) (see background).
“I am worried that there is an increased tendency in Europe towards populism and radicalism, a re-nationalisation of Europe,” Verhofstadt said. “The message everywhere is the same: it cannot continue like that. I think there is a problem. Protests reflect that.”
The liberal leader gave a series of examples of international groups, such as Transparency International, which revealed that the corruption situation in Romania had worsened under President Traian Basescu's PDL.
Swoboda said the latest developments in Romania were “a dangerous deviation from the principle of democracy”.
He gave an explanation for what pushed Romanians to take to the streets in the past month: "Bypassing parliament and issuing government decrees instead of democratic laws cannot be tolerated. If people realise that the parliament is not heard, they will rightly go onto the streets.”
When it comes to voting in the European Parliament, Romanian liberals are the most to the Parliament's Liberal group and the country's social democrats are the third most loyal to the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, according to statistics provided by the VoteWatch group, which monitors legislative votes.
This year, Bucharest will be a point of attraction for political groups in the European Parliament, with the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) holding its annual congress there. The European Socialists will also hold their biggest political event there at the end of September.
As a relatively large country, Romania has 33 MEPs in Parliament, compared to 18 representing Bulgaria. “In Central and Eastern Europe, Romania and Poland are generally considered the most influential countries and at the moment, the European political families have a stake in Romania,” a Romanian source told EurActiv.
Location of public hearing boosts audience impact
Opinion polls show that Romanians trust EU institutions more than their domestic political system.
“Romanians think the EU is more honest than the national politicians and usually good things came from the EU in Romania, such as the reform of the judiciary, brought about with the help of the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification,” the Romanian source said. “The EU is perceived as a guardian of good manners and directions in Romania”.
The European Parliament's public hearing was broadcast on Romania's Antena 3 television which currently leads in terms of audience and has been most active in covering last month’s protests. The station is broadly seen as supporting the opposition.
“For the ordinary Romanian, who does not know what are the responsibilities of the European Parliament exactly, the fact that democracy in their country was discussed in the EP will mean that the situation is getting serious – the social democrats and the liberals played on this, making the EP say it for them,” the source close to the political discussions said.
He also added that the intention of the opposition parties in Romania was to affect the country’s image - for which he said Basescu holds responsibility.
Intention of hearing was 'not to complain'
“I did not come here with the opposition parties to complain or criticise Romania. I came with three targets: to inform you about facts that we consider a break of European standards of democracy,” said Victor Ponta, who heads Romania's Social Democrats.
Liberal leader Crin Antonescu likened Romania's current regime to a “dictatorship” similar to Syria, adding that the US ambassador to Romania said that “at least people are not being shot in the streets”. The liberal leader also accused Basescu of adopting Mussolini-like rhetoric.
Conservative leader Constantin Daniel criticised Prime Minister Emil Boc for Romania’s low capacity to absorb EU regional funding - currently the lowest in the EU, at 3.5%.
Romanian MEP Traian Ungureanu (EPP) criticised European Parliament President Martin Schulz, saying he exceeded his powers by getting involved in Romanian national politics and went over the top by welcoming Ponta and Antonescu in the Assembly on 31 January.
“In his capacity as president of the European Parliament, he has no moral right to rule in matters of domestic policy and I wonder if it's a gesture worthy of an EP President," the Mediafax news agency quoted Unugreanu as saying
Ungureanu called Swoboda an “accomplice” for ”reinforcing the idea that Romania is a country under dictatorship”, Mediafax reported.
MEPs who are members of the ruling PDL in Romania are expected to send an official complaint to the EP over Schulz’s action, the Mediafax report said.