The EU on Wednesday (24 January) voiced “concern” at Romania’s controversial plans for judicial reform, warning against “backtracking” on efforts to fight corruption, in the latest clash between Brussels and the bloc’s former communist east.
A package of changes that will curb the powers of the Romanian anti-corruption investigative body has triggered protests, most recently on Saturday when 30,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Bucharest.
Brussels has warned Romania it is not doing enough to tackle crime and corruption and bring its legal system up to EU standards, and on Wednesday two of the bloc’s most senior figures added their voices to the chorus of criticism.
“We are following the latest developments in Romania with concern,” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and vice president Frans Timmermans said in a joint statement.
Juncker represents the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) while Timmermans is the most senior socialist official in the European Commission. The fact that both signed the statement obviously means that Romania’s Partidul Social Democrat government (PSD) has no backing in the EU executive. This is the second time in less than one year that the Commission makes such a warning.
“The independence of Romania’s judicial system and its capacity to fight corruption effectively are essential cornerstones of a strong Romania in the European Union. The irreversibility of the progress achieved so far under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism is an essential condition to phase out the Mechanism”, the two top chiefs of the Commission state.
Romania and Bulgaria are subject to monitoring by the Commission over deficiencies in their law-enforcement system. The monitoring was introduced from the day of their accession on 1 January 2007 and is still ongoing. Juncker had previously expressed the hope that the monitoring could be lifted before the end of his term in 2019.
In its annual report on Romania in November, the commission warned the country was in danger of going backwards on commitments it made to reform when it joined the EU in 2007, highlighting judicial independence as a “persistent source of concern”.
Juncker and Timmermans said events since the report had “done nothing” to address worries about the legal reforms.
“The commission calls on the Romanian parliament to rethink the course of action proposed, to open up the debate in line with the commission’s recommendations and to build a broad consensus on the way forward,” they said in their statement.
“The commission again warns against backtracking and will look thoroughly at the final amendments to the justice law, the criminal codes and laws on conflict of interest and corruption to determine the impact on efforts to safeguard the independence of the judiciary and combat corruption.”
Romania’s left-wing government has defended its reform plans, insisting it was committed to the rule of law and tackling corruption and saying it was open to “real and concrete dialogue” to address concerns.
The boss of the ruling Social Democrats, Liviu Dragnea, in a letter sent to Juncker and Timmermans on Wednesday, expressed his “concern over the incorrect manner, in which the European Commission was informed about the transparency of the (reform) debates”.
“The European Commission’s recommendations have been taken into account” for the judicial changes, read the letter co-signed by the president of the Romanian Senate.
Brussels is also at loggerheads with other ex-Soviet bloc EU states including Poland and Hungary over rule of law issues, media freedoms and the treatment of migrants.