EU concern over Romanian power struggle

Traian B?sescu and Victor Ponta

Attempts by Romania’s new prime minister, Victor Ponta, to impeach the country’s president Traian B?sescu – under way at an extraordinary meeting in the Bucharest parliament this afternoon – are rattling the Commission amidst concerns over democracy.

The EU executive is especially worried about the “sequence of events and the quick way in which they were adopted”, jeopardising progress in Romanian rule of law over the past four years, Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly told EURACTIV.

European Commission president José 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”.

President on brink of impeachment

Tonight (6 July) the parliament is expected to vote on a move to impeach current president Trian B?sescu 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 B?sescu has acted unconstitutionally, tried to undermine the role of the prime minister, usurped the economic competencies of the government, and disrespected judicial independence.

B?sescu accuses Ponta of attempting to impeach him in order to increase USL control over all the state institutions. 

Were the parliament to suspend B?sescu, 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 B?sescu from Bucharest's Cotroceni Palace. 

If impeached, B?sescu would face a referendum on his presidency within 30 days, making 22 July the likely date for such a poll. 

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 by the end of July the Commission is 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.

In a commentary published on 6 July, during the impeachment vote in the Romanian parliament, policy analysist Corina Stratulat and researcher Paul Ivan, both of the European Policy Centre said:

"The developments in Romania show that democratic achievements are not irreversible and that the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law on which the Union is founded are not immune to assaults".

“What is happening these days in Romania is nothing but a fight led by Antonescu and Ponta against the rule of law and democracy,” liberal-democrat MP Vasile Blaga – dismissed from his function as head of Senate on 3 July by premier Victor Ponta - said during the extraordinary meeting of the European Parliament.  He warned the coalition led by premier Ponta and liberal chief Crin Antonescu  - now president of the Senate – have begun a siege of all the state institutions, president Traian Basescu being “the only obstacle left in their way”. 

“You forgot that there is one institutions which you cannot siege  and that is represented by the people,” Blaga added, making a reference to the national poll which will be organised to decide whether president Basescu will keep his seat in case he is impeached on Friday (6 July).

"The president abandoned his role of mediator between the state and the society," social-democrat MP Dan ?ova said during the extraordinary parliamentary meeting. Citing articles from the Constitution, ?ova said the move to impeach the president, along with putting him through a referendum is legal. 

Leftist Social Democrats and rightist Liberals and Conservatives have joined forces with a view to ousting Romania's centre-right government in the next general election, set for later this year.

The three parties on 5 February 2011 signed a protocol forming an alliance called the Union of Social Liberals, USL.

The USL are to present single candidates at local elections to be held in the spring of 2012 and they are also hopeful of forming the next government.

The first goal of the coalition is to spark early parliamentary elections. Both liberal leader Crin Antonescu and the social-democratic leader Victor Ponta  - now prime minister - have said they would like to see Basescu step down.

The presidential election is due in 2014.

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