EXCLUSIVE: The Party of European Socialists (PES) are set to formalise a decision to move their Congress away from Bucharest, amid concerns over Prime Minister Victor Ponta's democratic credentials, EurActiv can reveal.

No decision has been taken on the future of the 28-29 September event, but there is strong feeling that the Bucharest congress would be moved to Brussels, Socialist sources from the European Parliament told EurActiv.

The same sources, who asked not to be named, said “only a couple of leaders” of the PES-affiliated parties across Europe had confirmed attendance at the Bucharest congress, the rest apparently being reluctant to be hosted by Ponta, who has been under fire since he took office this spring.

When the decision to hold the congress in Bucharest was taken last year, Ponta was in opposition. As Romania’s parliamentary elections are due in the autumn, the congress was designed to boost his international image ahead of the poll.

But Ponta seized power in the meantime after the centre-right government of Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu, who has been in office only two months, lost a vote of confidence on 27 April. Ponta set up a government of the alliance called the Social Liberal Union,USL, consisting of his PSD party, the National Liberal Party (PNL)of Crin Antonescu and the small Conservative Party.

Since then, Romania has been marred by a power struggle between the country’s centre-right President Traian Băsescu and attempts by USL to establish its control over the judiciary, the Constitutional Court, and the news media – drawing accusations that it was undermining the checks and balances of democracy in general.

EU criticism

"Events in Romania have shaken our trust," Commission President José Manuel Barroso said on 18 July.

“Challenging judicial decisions, undermining the constitutional court, overturning established procedures and removing key checks and balances have called into question the government's commitment to respect the rule of law,” Barroso said.

Before that, Barroso had met with Ponta and presented him with a 11-point to-do list aimed at restoring the status quo following what critics said was an attempted coup d’état because of his efforts to remove the president.

In addition, a plagiarism scandal over Ponta’s doctoral thesis rocked the establishment. A special state commission first ruled that the thesis was plagiarised, but reversed its decision after the government changed the panel’s members. Independently, Bucharest University ruled that the thesis was plagiarised.

Hannes Swoboda, president of the PES group of the European Parliament who had been supporting Ponta’s government, said on 5 July: “We must carefully monitor the developments in Romania. As S&D group we have a very clear stance: There is only one question for us and that is whether EU laws and values are being violated.”

The European Commission is expected to rule in December whether its concerns have been properly addressed.

In the meantime, Ponta made a major political concession when he asked his MEPs not to block the Constitutional Court ruling to return the country's embattled president to office. Antonescu, an ally of Ponta’s who had served as interim president, had tried to invalidate the Parliament sitting by asking his MPs to boycott the session.

Băsescu has now returned to office, but the cohabitation could be a stormy one. No date is officially set for the parliamentary election, but word is circulating that they will be held on 2 December.

Saving face

PES sources said that while leaders of centre-left parties didn’t want to be criticised at home for being hosted by such a controversial leader as Ponta, there were also concerns that he should not be weakened before the election.

It would be a sharp blow for Ponta, who will turn 40 on 20 September, if the congress is moved away from Bucharest, a Romanian PSD source told EurActiv.

In any case, it appears that a decision to move the congress to Brussels should be coupled with a face-saving reason to be used internally in Romania, a difficult exercise for the PES secretariat.

For the time being, PES leaders are not reachable, as they attend a congress of the Socialist International in South Africa.

The PES congress, which is held twice every five years, has to elect a new president. The only candidate so far is the interim President Sergei Stanishev, former prime minister and leader of the Bulgarian Socialist party, who was chosen on 24 November 2011 to succeed the retiring Poul Nyrup Rasmussen. Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, was party president for nearly eight years.

The new PES leader will be elected for a two-and-a-half year period.