European Commission president Jose-Manuel Barroso today called premier Victor Ponta to Brussels next Thursday (12 July) to discuss “concerns” such as “actions that appear to reduce the effective powers of independent institutions like the Constitutional Court”.
Ponta neglected a decision of the Constitutional Court which ruled that he could not represent Romania at the last European Summit (28-29 June). He has also issued an urgent decree, approved by the government last Wednesday (4 July), stating that opinions of the Constitutional Court are no longer mandatory for parliamentary decisions.
This means that the Constitutional Court will no longer have a binding ruling on the president's impeachment.
The new Romanian premier also changed, in one day, chiefs of the chambers of deputies and the senate, together with the ombudsman and Constitutional Court judges.
EU Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding tweeted that she was seriously concerned about the recent attacks on the independence of the Romanian Constitutional Court.
Leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Guy Verhofstadt, today sent a letter to Reding following her statement.
“I would be grateful of you could provide us with your assessment of the situation in Romania. Especially since the Romanian government informs us and reassures us that they are acting in accordance with the existing legislation and its European commitments,” Verhofstadt said.
President of the social-democrat group of the European Parliament, Hannes Swoboda, who has so far been supporting the Romanian government led by Ponta, said: “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.”
Swoboda added, however, that they have not yet seen a violation of EU laws and “do not see the need for action”.
Backpedaling on justice reforms
Ponta's undermining of the role of Romania's highest court may also affect a report the European Commission will publish this summer on the country's judicial reforms and anti-corruption measures.
The report has been annually drawn for the past five years as part of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism – the condition under which Romania joined the EU in 2007 – and this summer the Commission was expected to summarise five years of work.
“Recent developments may be putting at risk the progress made over the years,” the Commission said in a statement issued just hours before the impeachment vote in the Romanian parliament.
Meanwhile, protesters against Ponta have been gathering in the capital Bucharest over the past week. The prime minister is also suspected of plagiarism, having reportedly “copy-pasted” almost a third of his doctoral thesis.
President on brink of impeachment
Tonight (6 July) the parliament is expected to vote on a move to impeach current president Trian Băsescu instigated by Ponta's Union of Social-Liberals (USL) coalition. The USL was still consolidating its position in the parliament trying to muster a majority of votes this evening.
The USL alleges, amongst other things, that Băsescu has acted unconstitutionally, tried to undermine the role of the prime minister, usurped the economic competencies of the government, and disrespected judicial independence.
Băsescu accuses Ponta of attempting to impeach him in order to increase USL control over all the state institutions.
Were the parliament to suspend Băsescu, he would be replaced for an interim period by the liberal leader and senate president Crin Antonescu, a fellow USL ally of Ponta.
Antonescu would not have the power to dissolve parliament or to organise a referendum on the presidency issu, and would be required to wait for official Constitutional Court confirmation that the presidency is vacant before ousting Băsescu from Bucharest's Cotroceni Palace.
If impeached, Băsescu would face a referendum on his presidency within 30 days, making 22 July the likely date for such a poll.