Corruption in Romania: a European affair

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Romanians carry a banner during a protest on how the EU Parliament elections were organized for Romanians living abroad, in front of Foreign Ministry headquarters in Bucharest, Romania,27 May 2019. [Robert Ghement/EPA/EFE]

The situation in Romania is partly hopeful: numerous civic movements have emerged in the country and an outstanding anti-corruption movement is growing in the society, especially among the young generations, write Elena Denisa Petrescu and Yannis Karamitsios.

Elena Denisa Petrescu is the delegations coordinator of IAPSS (International Association of Political Science Students), Bucharest; Yannis Karamitsios is a co-founder of Alliance 4 Europe, Brussels.

One of the reasons why Romania did not accede the EU together with most of the central and eastern European states in 2004, was its feeble internal mechanisms for fighting corruption. Eventually, it was accepted to join the club in 2007, together with Bulgaria, but on condition that it strengthens the rule of law, the anti-corruption legal framework and judicial independence.

The European Commission set up a transitional tool to assist both countries to address judicial shortcomings, known as the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) and reports about the noted progress close to the end of each year.

Costs and perceptions of corruption in Romania.

According to a recent study, more than €38.6 billion is lost each year in Romania due to corruption. This is equivalent to around 15.6% of its GDP.

Corruption is clearly a priority for Romanians. As the results of the 2017 Special Eurobarometer indicate, 68% of Romanian citizens believe that they are personally affected by corruption in their daily lives, the highest proportion among the EU member states. 46% consider that corruption has increased over the past three years.

Additionally, 25% reported having been asked or expected to pay a bribe for a public service they needed at a given time, the second-highest among the EU.

Moreover, Romania scored 47 points out of 100 and ranked, after Hungary, the most corrupt EU member state, in the Corruption Perceptions Index released by Transparency International in 2018.

Three years of moving backwards

Since December 2016, when the Social Democrat Party (PSD) won the parliamentary elections and formed a coalition government with the Alliance of Liberal and Democrats party (ALDE), the Commission recorded serious flaws.

The CVM report of 2018 stated that, despite certain progress that has been registered in addressing previous recommendations, “the reform momentum in course of 2017 was lost overall, slowing down the fulfilment of the remaining recommendations, and with the risk of re-opening issues which the January 2017 report had considered as fulfilled”.

The first thing the government did was to introduce a bill decriminalising the offence of abuse of power that involved sums of less than €44,000. And that was only the start.

It further adopted legislative changes to the judicial system with minimal or no previous consultation. Judges and prosecutors were subjected to political attacks. A leading case is related to the accusations brought by the ruling party to different prosecutors of the National Anticorruption Directorate, and particularly to its former Chief, Laura Codruta Kovesi, of “manufacturing” charges against a lot of Romanian politicians.

On 30 May 2019, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the government, concluding that President Klaus Iohannis had to dismiss Kovesi who, apropos, some days ago had been confirmed by the Council of the European Union to become the EU’s first public prosecutor.

Ample sectors of the civil society have been subjected to increased pressure and their rallies have sometimes been brutally suppressed, leaving dozens injured.

Europe reacts

In November 2018, the European Parliament adopted a resolution stating that it is “deeply concerned” about the reform of the Romanian judicial and criminal laws, which risks undermining the separation of powers and the fight against corruption.

In May 2019, the Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans sent a letter to the Romanian government noting that “Recent amendments to the criminal code risk creating a situation of de facto impunity for crimes, including corruption crimes” and for this reason, Romania could face a barrage of EU sanctions.

At the same period, the Romanian ALDE had to withdraw from the European ALDE, because as a junior coalition partner of the government had supported those amendments, something that was not tolerated by the European party.

A European affair

It is not difficult to see the European dimension of the rule of law problem in Romania. Being the biggest country in its region, it sets the trends for the others too, like Bulgaria or the Western Balkan states that wish to accede the EU.

The exacerbation of corruption in Romania, or the improvement of the situation there, is going to set a pattern for the neighbours too. It will also test the EU effectiveness in promoting its values throughout its territory.

The situation is partly hopeful. Numerous civic movements have risen in the country. An outstanding anti-corruption movement is growing in Romanian society, especially among the young generations. The amendments of the criminal legislation have been frozen.

However, the political and economic players must do their part too.

By the end of the year we will have the full set of the new EU leadership: a new Commission, a new Council Presidency and a new European Parliament.

The conclusions of the new Commission report that will be issued by the end of this year, should be used by every side as a tool for sending the right message and in the right tone.

The European Council must set clearer indicators for the accession of Romania to the Schengen area on the basis of the progress noted in that report. If no other sticks seem politically realistic, Schengen membership is a carrot that Romania cannot afford to miss for much longer.

The Members of the European Parliament, and especially the Romanian ones, must address more actively the issue of corruption through legislation, reports, questions and resolutions.

International investors and donors must step up the pressure from their side too. They must make their investments conditional to a genuine anti-corruption policy. They should send a clear signal to the Romanian government that they cannot operate in that country without a robust judicial system and a transparent administration.

Finally, the European media and their associations must actively intervene too. They should address the issue of rule of law in Romania as a major regional and European matter. They should highlight more intensely the cases where Romanian journalists are intimidated for reporting on corruption. More importantly, they must condemn any smear campaigns that Romanian media would run against pro-transparency officials.

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