Commission slams Romania with scathing report

Victor Ponta.jpg

EXCLUSIVE: The European Commission is using unprecedented language in its report on Romania’s progress under the monitoring mechanism of judicial reform and fight against corruption, to be published today (18 July). EURACTIV reveals the contents of the report.

If the country's constitutional order is not respected, Romania could see its voting rights in the EU Council of Ministers suspended, EURACTIV understands. 

The Commission warning comes after heated political in-fighting in Romania, where the new leftist Prime Minister Victor Ponta is accused by the opposition of conducting a ‘coup d’état’.

In its report, the Commission expresses worries about the situation and says it doubts the country’s ability to comply with the EU’s fundamental principles and the sustainability and irreversibility of reform.

Barroso's '11 commandments'

The 27 EU Commissioners are meeting today to endorse the monitoring report, which totals 60 pages and includes two parts: one political and the other technical.

On Monday, two days ahead of publication, Commission President José Manuel Barroso spoke to Ponta on the telephone and received his assurances that an 11-point to-do list – dubbed “the 11 commandments" by the press – will be fully respected.

Ponta was handed the 11-point list when he came to Brussels at the request of Barroso on 12 July. Their meeting ended without the usual "VIP corner" press conference. TV footage showed a grim-faced Barroso, contrasting with his standard jovial ways while hosting meetings with leaders of the EU member states.

Ponta commits to Barroso

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on the telephone call, Commission spokesperson Frédéric Vincent said that the EU executive had received a letter from Ponta, in which he committed to address all the 11 concerns raised by Barroso.

“The Commission welcomes the swift action taken by Prime Minister Ponta and his government to meet the concerns raised by the Commission on the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in Romania. These commitments are indispensable to re-establish the trust and confidence,” Vincent said, adding that the recent developments, including those reassurances, would be reflected in the report.

Advanced copies of the political and the technical reports were made available to the Romanian authorities.

The Romanian reports contrast with similar documents concerning Bulgaria, which also will be published today.

While Bulgaria is seen as being “on its way” to meet the objectives of the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (see background), in the case of Romania the Commission says the country “could attain” the same objectives, “provided it maintains the direction and steps up the implementation of reform”.

In addition, the Commission envisages tougher monitoring of Romania than Bulgaria. The next monitoring report on Romania will be published before the end of the current year, while for Bulgaria, the next report is expected by the end of 2013. Unlike Romania, where political considerations are predominant, Bulgaria is criticised for its failure to crack down on organised crime (>> Read our article on the Bulgaria report)

An immature democracy?

“The Commission considers that recent steps by the Romanian government raise serious concerns about the respect of the [EU’s] fundamental principles,” the report reads.

“These steps took place in an overly polarised political system where mistrust between political entities and accusations are a common pattern; however this political context cannot explain the systemic nature of several actions.”

Those actions include allegations of: political challenges to judicial decisions, undermining of the country’s Constitutional Court, the overturning of established procedures, the removal of key checks and balances, and threats which affect institutions.

Regarding the five-year experience Romania's monitoring under the monitoring process, the Commission dryly says that changes have come about primarily as the result of external pressure.

“The fact that external pressure is still necessary raises the question about the sustainability and irreversibility of reform,” the document reads.

Another sentence reads: “The trust of the Romania’s partners will be only won back through proof that the rule of law is above political interest.”

VIP treatment in courts

The technical report goes into detail about the apparent malfunctioning of law enforcement in Romania, where often MPs and government officials escape justice. Without mentioning names, the Commission refers to several drastic cases, including those of two MPs who remain in Parliament despite convictions on corruption charges. Overall, in the past five years, no improvement in the lifting of MPs immunities has occurred, the report notes.

Indicted VIPs in Romania evidently enjoy special treatment by the judiciary. One example provided is of a former deputy minister indicted in 2006, with only procedural aspects touched upon until the end of 2011. Court cases for unjustified wealth have been dragging on since they were started in 2004 and 2005.

Some positive assessments are made with respect to the Romanian anti-corruption agency, or DNA. Between 2008 and 2011 DNA sent to trial cases with total estimated damage of €1.13 billion, the report reads. DNA investigations have led to the indictments of 14 MPs and nine ministers, including a former prime minister, the report reads.

The National Integrity Agency ANI is also commended for its work, although a number of deficiencies in its functioning were noted. Some 4,000 investigations carried out by ANI have resulted in only one indictment, the technical report says.

The political report concludes with 30 recommendations to the Romanian authorities (in contrast, the recommendations to Bulgaria are 17). At least eight of them concern the return to the status quo of the country’s checks and balances since the coming to power of the Ponta government earlier this year.

When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained regarding judicial reform and the fight against corruption. In the case of Bulgaria, problems also remained regarding the fight against organised crime.

A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was set up to assist both countries with judiciary matters after their EU accession. Moreover, the European Commission retained the right to use special safeguards.

These allow the EU to refuse to recognise court decisions or even freeze payments of EU funds.

However, starting 1 January 2010 Brussels no longer had the power to trigger the clause.

On 13 September 2010 EU countries decided to extend monitoring of Romania and Bulgaria for another year. On 20 July 2011 Romania and Bulgaria were again given one more year before the Commission tabling "appropriate proposals".

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