The European Commission said on Monday (13 May) that Romania is close to being hit with Article 7 of the EU treaties, the heaviest punishment for a member state deviating from rule of law fundamentals. Losing the chance to join the Schengen zone any time soon would be one of the consequences.
The Commission hardly waited for the end of the Sibiu summit to send its warning letter to the Romanian authorities on Friday (10 May). This was confirmed by Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas on Monday.
He said the letter had been sent to the Romanian president, prime minister and the presidents of both chambers of the parliament, and that the main concerns regarded judicial independence and the effective fight against corruption, including the protection of the financial interests of the EU.
In particular, he stressed the recent amendments to the country’s Criminal Code, which risk creating a de facto impunity for high-ranking officials.
The bills are the latest in a series of legal and personnel changes made by the ruling Social Democrats since they came to power in 2017 that are seen as threats to judicial independence and have raised concerns in the EU, the US State Department and among thousands of Romanian magistrates.
One of the changes approved on 24 April shortens the statute of limitations covering some offences, a move that would automatically shut down a number of ongoing cases. Other amendments include lower sentences for some offences and decriminalising negligence in the workplace.
If necessary improvements are not made, or if further negative steps are taken, such as the promulgation of the amendments to the Criminal Code, “the Commission will trigger the Rule of Law framework without delay, and will suspend the Cooperation and Verification mechanism”, Schinas said.
Romania had hoped that the CVM would be suspended, but in a different way, not by replacing it by something much harder and punitive, such as the Article 7 procedure.
EURACTIV asked Schinas if the call to member states by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to open up accession to the Schengen border-free space to Romania was still valid after the harsh warning.
Schinas said that that if the issues identified in Timmermans’ letter are not correctly addressed, this position by Juncker, very consistent until now, would be threatened.
Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia are candidates to join Schengen. Last September, Manfred Weber, leading candidate for the EPP in the European elections, called for Bulgaria and Croatia to join but did not mention Romania.