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Romania’s judicial reforms: A case study for future member states

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Romania’s judicial reforms: A case study for future member states

The People’s Palace. Bucarest. [Dan Nevill/Flickr]

Nine years after joining the EU, Romania is continuing its fight against corruption, as well as tackling the challenge of recovering the proceeds of crime. Experts say that its judicial reform experience could serve as an example to future EU member states. EurActiv Romania reports.

Romania’s difficult transformation process from a country engulfed in corruption to one in which the acting prime minister could be sent to trial, started in the early 2000s.

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The beginning of negotiations for accession to the EU provided the impetus. Between 2000 and 2004, under EU pressure to implement reforms, some of the most important legislative and institutional changes – essential for the fight against corruption – took place. Thus, essential laws for the fight against corruption were passed and the National Anticorruption Prosecution Office (PNA) was founded. However, no immediate practical results came of it. has talked with Romanian anti-corruption experts and investigative journalists to learn more about what happened in Romania after this period and its overall relevance for other prospective EU member states.

Changing the paradigm and the initial effects of the accession

The situation changed in 2004 after Traian Băsescu, running on a tough anti-corruption platform, won the presidential election. Under pressure by the approaching deadline of the accession and backed by new political will, the previously-created institutional framework evolved, and produced its first results. A new National Anti-corruption Strategy was developed, PNA was transformed into an independent public agency named the National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), and the fight against corruption took off.

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Paradoxically, what ended up slowing down the evolution of the justice system was the finalisation of the accession process itself. As such, released from the pressure of the obligations derived from negotiations with the EU, the tension between corrupt political interests and the justice system was set free. Judicial reform and the fight against corruption came under fire, and the country became overwhelmed by political scandals.

As Romanian anti-corruption expert, Laura Stefan, explains “the most important reforms have been undertaken before 2007. After the accession, the reforms were confronted with a political reflux that endangered their sustainability.”

The Cooperation and Verification Mechanism

Romania needed a substitute for the conditions and obligations of the pre-accession period, a tool for repelling political attacks against the justice system and for further supporting the judicial reform and the fight against corruption. The solution was offered by the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).

“The CVM has been essential. Without it, the reforms would not have been sustainable. After all, the reform of the justice system and the fight against corruption reflected a proposal for a new social paradigm. This does not happen overnight and it needs support,” said Stefan.

That view is also shared by Bianca Toma, EU affairs programs director with the Romanian Center for European Policies. She explained to that “the CVM was crucial for reforming the justice system and for the fight against corruption”.

“It offered tough signals discouraging high-level corruption, political corruption, and, more importantly, it stopped political attempts to disrupt the efforts of reforming the system,” said Toma.

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In fact, CVM was an experiment introduced when Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007, but it was not replicated with the accession of Croatia in 2013. Instead, the Commission started to open the Justice and Human Rights-related chapters very early in the accession talks.

Investigative journalists Ovidiu Vanghele and Andrei Astefanesei agree on the positive influence of the CVM.

“We, as a people, have lost the determination of doing something for our general good, so we need someone to push us, to demand us to change. And that was what the EU did, through the CVM. Through this mechanism, the EU pushed our decision makers to allow the judiciary to be independent, forced them to cancel the control they had over the judiciary,” said Vanghele.

The mechanism acted in this sense against any attempts to alter the anti-corruption path of the country. As explained by Astefanesei, “without it, the criminal legal code would have been mutilated.”

This remains true to this day, as “there are still members of the parliament who have put pressure on the justice system, who changed laws and who are currently trying to leave the justice system powerless in the case of certain crimes”, said Astefanesei.

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Civil society has also played an essential role after Romania`s accession to the EU. As explained by Toma, “there are reactions from within the system. The reformed elements protect themselves, they act and they react, while the civil society, broadly composed of action groups, NGOs, activists, journalists, students, intellectuals and ordinary citizens, produces prompt and strong reactions”.

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The results of the process

As such, with the support of CVM and of important segments of society, the first post-accession major breakthroughs appeared. New institutions such as the National Integrity Agency started to work, high-level corruption cases started to be investigated by DNA, and the first high-level convictions were issued.

In 2012, this process reached one of its most important moments, when Adrian Nastase, the former prime minister of Romania between 2000 and 2004 and presidential candidate of the 2004 election, was sentenced to a jail term for corruption. After that, the activity of DNA increased each year, reaching a peak in 2015 when it finalised investigations for over 1,250 defendants, including one prime minister, five ministers, 16 members of the chamber of deputies and five senators.

New challenges

Today, Romania faces new challenges that have to do with the recovery of the proceeds of crime.

“Now we see important officials brought to justice and sent to jail, but we still don’t see any recoveries of the proceeds of crime. This should be the main subject for the following years. Corrupt officials now accept the idea that they can make money, go to jail for a few months or years, and then have a long and happy life with the resources that corruption has provided them. This needs to stop,” explained Vanghele.

In response, a new institution was established this year – the National Agency for the Management of Seized Assets (ANABI). The new agency is expected to become fully operational by the end of the year and to play a crucial part not only in recovering the proceeds of crime, but also in discouraging corrupt practices.

On the other hand, according to Toma, Romania also needs to do more to further improving the quality of its justice system. In this regard, she explained to that “even if there has been progress, the justice system has still work to do with respect to the principle of the same penalty for the same offence and higher expectations are also in order with respect to the predictability of the legislative framework”.

Lessons for future EU Member States

Romania has changed profoundly since the early 2000s. “Before the country`s accession to the EU, we were rarely seeing an investigated member of parliament, now the former president is under investigation and we even saw an acting prime minister being sent to trial,” said Astefanesei.

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This reflects, according to Stefan, the disappearance of a culture of impunity, as everybody is now within the law’s reach.

Nonetheless, Vanghele warns that change is slow and it is reversible. According to Vanghele, “the struggle to transform a corrupt environment into a rule-of-law society is long”, and Romania now needs to do better in ensuring that the proceeds of corrupt practices are recovered.

In this sense, Romania shows that fighting corruption is a complex process that does not end with definitive court rulings. Until the cost-effective rationale against corruption – that counterbalances the probability of jail time with financial gains – is dismantled and discouraged through confiscation procedures, corrupt practices will continue.

All the analysts consulted by agree that Romania`s experience is relevant for societies going through judicial transitions, as well as for potential future EU member states. The country’s example highlights the importance of having clear conditions and obligations with respect to the rule of law and the fight against corruption, and illustrates the necessity of maintaining support in favour of pre-accession reforms after joining the EU.