Romania urged to heed rule of law before assuming EU presidency

President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, delivers his speech during the debate on the future of Europe in Strasbourg, France, 23 October 2018. [Patrick Seeger/EPA/EFE]

The European Union on Tuesday warned Romania to respect EU democratic values before it assumes the bloc’s rotating presidency in January, or risk undermining its bid to join Europe’s passport-free zone.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has expressed concern about changes to Romania’s penal code recently pushed through by the ruling Social Democratic Party which its critics say are unconstitutional.

During a debate in the European Parliament with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned Romania not to undermine its bid to join Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone.

“I hope Romania joins the Schengen zone, but it must not mortgage that by turning away from the (European) principles on rule of law,” Juncker said during debate in the European Parliament.

“I hope in Romania there is a consensus for the fight against corruption, otherwise the European Commission will have trouble with its recommendations and getting them adopted unanimously,” he added.

To become a member of the Schengen zone, Romania needs a recommendation from the Commission and unanimous support from the other 27 EU member countries.

Romania’s and neighbouring Bulgaria’s bid to join the Schengen zone have been blocked since 2007.

Recently Manfred Weber, who hopes to succeed Juncker at the Commission’s helm, called for Bulgaria and Croatia to join Schengen “immediately”, but he omitted to mention Romania.

Manfred Weber: Bulgaria and Croatia should join Schengen ‘immediately’

Bulgaria and Croatia should join the EU’s passport-free Schengen area immediately, EPP group leader Manfred Weber said on Wednesday (12 September), in a friendly gesture to two Eastern European governments from his political family.

During its tenure of the six-month presidency from 1 January, Juncker suggested, Romania’s recommendations on other subjects may also face trouble.

Several members of the European Parliament took Iohannis to task over what they see is the damage to the rule of law in Romania caused by the judicial reforms.

‘Systemic threat’

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the ALDE liberal group in the parliament, also warned that the weakening of the penal code undermined the fight against corruption.

Verhofstadt urged Romania not to “follow the example” of Poland and Hungary for which EU bodies have launched actions that could lead to unprecedented sanctions for allegedly posing a “systemic threat” to the rule of law.

EU Commission vice president Frans Timmermans has repeatedly expressed his “concern” about some of Romania’s judicial changes and asked clarification from Prime Minister Dancila in a letter sent earlier this month.

In June, 12 western countries warned that some of Romania’s judicial reforms could “impede cooperation (with Romania) in international law enforcement.”

Western states warn Romania reforms threaten co-operation

Twelve Western countries issued a joint statement yesterday (28 June) warning that controversial judicial reforms proposed by Romanian lawmakers could “impede international law enforcement cooperation”.

Prosecutors have had some success in the clamping down on corruption in Romania, one of the EU’s most graft-ridden country, but the government accuses them of overstepping their power.

After winning elections in late 2016, the Social Democrat-led government attempted to water down anti-corruption legislation, but abandoned the plans in face of the biggest wave of protests since the collapse of communism in 1989.

The Schengen area is one of the pillars of the European project, enshrining the fundamental right to free movement.

Twenty-two EU countries, plus non-EU Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein are part of Schengen. The six EU countries that do not participate are Britain, Ireland, Bulgaria, Romania, Cyprus and Croatia.

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