Procedural problems prevented Romanian Justice Minister Tudorel Toader from addressing the European Parliament’s plenary session on Wednesday (7 February) and explaining the government’s current judiciary reforms, which many MEPs see as a threat to the rule of law.
Instead, MEPs grilled Romania’s government ‘in absentia’ on Wednesday, although Toader was present in Strasbourg and ready to speak.
Roberta Metsola, a spokeswoman on home affairs and civil liberties for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), explained that the Romanian justice minister could not take the floor in the plenary because this is a privilege reserved for prime ministers.
For “reasons of her own”, the new Prime Minster Viorica Dăncilă, who is a former MEP, could not attend, Metsola said.
That prompted Romanian MEP Dan Nica of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group to argue that according to the Romanian Constitution, it wasn’t the prime minister but the president of Romania who should have been in Brussels, and in his absence, the minister of justice.
“The Romanian justice minister is here, and I think that for this kind of debate, to hear all the arguments, it is necessary to hear minister Tudorel Toader, who is also a member of the Venice Commission, so that he would answer the questions.”
“I think it’s a very grave thing, we are discussing important issues today and it’s important for democracy, for all Romanians, that here, in the European Parliament, the Romanian justice minister should be able to give his explanations”, Nica said, appealing to the President to give Toader the possibility to speak.
Cristian Preda of the EPP retorted that Prime Minister Dăncilă was afraid to come to speak in Strasbourg.
In the end, the debate took place without the minister. Toader arrived in Strasbourg on Monday and had meetings with the Commission’s First Vice President in charge of rule of law, Frans Timmermans, and with members of the S&D group.
Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová made a harsh assessment of the situation in Romania, repeating the concerns recently voiced by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and his right-hand man Timmermans, who is the most senior social democrat in the EU executive.
She said there was widespread opposition to the changes to Romanian law and that this was also illustrated by the massive protests staged by Romanian citizens.
“The Commission has made no secret of the fact that it shares these concerns. So does the Council of Europe anti-corruption watchdog, which for the first time has decided to launch its own inquiry, with a report due in March”, she said.
Jourová said the Commission was seeing “open criticism of the judiciary defiance of judicial decisions” of the Romanian government vis-à-vis the judiciary, which “do not inspire confidence in the process”.
“The Council of Europe’s principle is that you cannot reform the judicial system against the judiciary,” she said, advising the Romanian authorities to consult with the Council of Europe Venice Commission before the new laws are promulgated.
The debate which followed descended into a series of heated exchanges between Romanian S&D and ALDE MEPs, who are supportive of the government, and their compatriots from EPP in the European Parliament. Few new arguments were heard.
Several Romanian S&D MEPs spoke of links between the judiciary and the “secret services”, alluding that the Romanian anti-corruption body has become an instrument for political repression against the PSD.
S&D Vice President Tanja Fajon voiced support for the authorities in Bucharest, stating that they had “openly and clearly shown their sincere willingness to explain the ongoing judicial reforms and to address the pending issues in accordance with European standards”.
“Hence, we firmly reject any politicisation or calculated attacks launched by the EPP. In Europe, there is no ‘Romanian issue’. The EPP and the right-wing forces should better look at Hungary and Poland, whose governments are deeply, concretely and continuously putting in danger their democracy and rule of law”, Fajon stated.
From the EPP, Malta’s Roberta Metsola highlighted the protests by Romanian citizens.
“Romanian citizens want a country where the rule of law and courts function, where corruption is fought and not condoned and where politicians work for the common good, not narrow personal interests. This is why they have been on the streets for more than a year. In freezing temperatures and snow, they flew EU flags because they believed in the values of Europe. The EU must not forget them. We must send them a clear message: you embody all that is right about Europe and we will not ignore you. The EPP Group will not ignore you”, Metsola stated.
Ska Keller, co-president of the Greens/EFA Group, criticised the Romanian government and also commended the citizens for their civic actions. She said, however, that it was high time that Romania is given the right join the passport-free Schengen area.
“We cannot accept that Romanian citizens are still unable to enjoy the same freedom to travel as the people of the Schengen area”, Keller said.
Bulgaria’s deputy minister Monika Panayotova, representing the Council, was very careful not to make judgements, and her position was praised by Romanian S&D MEPs. Both Romania and Bulgaria are under the so-called “Cooperation and Verification mechanism”, a unique monitoring procedure launched because of the perceived deficiencies in their law-enforcement systems.