European Commission warns Romania controversy threatens progress

Thu, Jul 19, 2012, 01:00

EUROPEAN DIARY: An attempt to oust Romania’s president is just one of premier Victor Ponta’s efforts to secure his own power

ROMANIAN SOCIAL democrat premier Victor Ponta is in the wars with his EU partners as he tries to oust the country’s unpopular centre-right president, Traian Basescu. Despite his protests to the contrary, Ponta stands accused of undermining both the rule of law in the country and the independence of its fragile judicial system.

The affair raises ugly memories of tensions with Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, who came under fire this year and last for blunting the independence of his country’s central bank, judiciary and data protection body.

Alongside Bulgaria, Romania has been under special EU scrutiny for years in relation to judicial reform and the rule of law. Progress is slow in each case but recent events cast Ponta and his administration in a particularly unflattering light.

The prime minister deployed his ample parliamentary majority to have Basescu suspended a fortnight ago, a measure which will lead to a referendum on Sunday week on the president’s continuation in office. Basescu survived a similar vote five years ago but his popularity is at a low ebb thanks to public anger at the International Monetary Fund-backed austerity policies his party pursued when in office.

The new impeachment process comes not long after the sentencing of former prime minister and Ponta mentor Adrian Nastase for corruption, leading Basescu to say the government manoeuvres against him were grounded in fear of further prosecutions.

Although the government insists the matter centres on Basescu’s alleged interference in judicial matters and his proximity to the constitutional court, its critics have pointed out that a new president could pardon Nastase.

Ponta’s campaign against the president is but one of many measures he has taken to consolidate his power. He has replaced the official ombudsman, tried to sack constitutional judges and curb the powers of the constitutional court and quashed the power of an academic panel which found he plagiarised large parts of his doctoral thesis.

These measures – and others besides – met with a decidedly cool reception. Ponta was called to Brussels last week for emergency talks with European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission chief José Manuel Barroso.

Ponta denied anything unsavoury at first but relented eventually, stating that he would address each of 11 specific complaints laid down by the commission. He has vowed to execute all constitutional court judgments and now accepts its ruling that a 50 per cent quorum is required for a valid impeachment referendum, something he had tried to dilute. That could help Basescu survive.

When the commission published a regular update on the rule of law and the fight against corruption in Romania yesterday, it said the present controversy poses a serious threat to progress achieved since the country joined the EU in 2007.

“Romania has stepped back from the edge but we cannot yet say that we have reached the end of the process,” said Barroso. “Events in Romania have shaken our trust. Challenging judicial decisions, undermining the constitutional court, overturning established procedures and removing key checks and balances have called into question the government’s commitment to respect the rule of law.”

While the report said recent developments took place within an overly-polarised political system in which mistrust and “accusations” between political entities are common, it said that could not explain he systematic nature of several recent actions.

“The commission is in particular extremely concerned by the indications of manipulations and pressure which affect institutions, members of the judiciary, and eventually have a serious impact on society as a whole,” it said.

Pressure on the court from government members and senior politicians stood as “unacceptable interventions” against an independent judicial institution. “The government and all political levels must respect the separation of powers. They must also strictly respect the independence of the judiciary,” it said.

None of this can help Romania’s campaign to be admitted to the Schengen passport-free travel zone, from which it and Bulgaria remain excluded. “Without recent developments we may indeed have seen different language in the report,” said a commission spokesman when asked yesterday whether the turmoil had undermined the country’s efforts on Schengen.

Pointedly, the commission said it will adopt another report on Romania at the end of this year.

This was in contrast to its stance on Bulgaria. Its next full assessment of the situation in Sofia will not be made until 2013 “to allow the time required to assess tangible results”.

Nevertheless, the commission issued a similar conclusion in relation to the two countries that “reform is not yet sustainable and irreversible”. In each case it said the objectives of the special oversight procedure “have not yet been met and benchmarks have not be satisfactorily fulfilled”.