DAMNING statements are not the European Commission’s forte, especially not when political events in a member state are at stake. And yet on July 7th the Commission broke with its tradition and issued a stark warning to the Romanian government, saying it was "concerned" about actions undermining the Constitutional Court.
The "sequence" of events in the last few weeks, a spokesman said, "put at risk all the progress made over the past five years in having more respect for the rule of law and democratic checks and balances and independence of the judiciary in the country". Similar concerns over the rule of law were voiced in Berlin, with some German parliamentarians even floating the possibility of suspending Romania’s voting rights in the European Union (EU).
This ‘nuclear option’ was only triggered once in the late 1990s when the far-right Freedom Party came to power in Austria. Last year the European Parliament also considered this move for Hungary after its new government made controversial changes to the constitution that put judges, central bankers and media under party control. But things are even worse in Romania, an EU official told our blog writer in Brussels, because there “they are not changing the constitution. They are breaking it”.
Victor Ponta, the prime minister, ignored a ruling of the Constitutional Court on who should represent Romania at EU meetings. The court was stripped of its powers to overrule the parliament’s decisions, judges were threatened, and the ombudsman, Gheorghe Iancu, replaced with a party loyalist. The official journal, which publishes court rulings and laws, was moved under government control to delay inconvenient rulings by the Constitutional Court– such as the one about who represents Romania at EU meetings.
On July 7th, parliament voted in favour of impeaching Traian Basescu, the president, on alleged misuse of power. It was a déjà vu: in 2007 Mr Basescu was suspended for a month until Romanians voted him back into office. But this time around, polls suggest he would lose the impending referendum on his return to power by almost 65%.
Mr Basescu’s defeat is even more certain since the Social-Liberal government of Mr Ponta has changed the referendum rules: there is no required minimum turnout for a referendum to be valid, which means that the dismissal of the president can be approved with the majority of those participating, however few. Mr Basescu’s dwindling electorate is mostly urban and highly educated, but a lot of them are disenchanted by the former sea captain because of his abrasive style and his failure to shake up the political system as promised. They are unlikely to participate in a vote.
Nobody in Brussels really understands why the Ponta government is so blatant in ignoring current legislation and in moving swiftly to get institutions – especially the judiciary – under party control. It is even more difficult to comprehend as Mr Ponta is poised to win the general elections later this year. "We were flabbergasted. But it is a mistake for them to think they can pull it through, these are not the 1990s," the EU official said. Romania is still under EU monitoring for guaranteeing an independent judiciary and for effectively fighting corruption and other crimes. A report is due later this month.
Mr Ponta is meanwhile expected to meet José Manuel Barroso, the commission chief, on July 12th to explain what he is doing. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, called Mr Basescu on July 9th. She told the president that she finds it unacceptable when core principles of rule of law are violated in a member state and that she will support the EU in "potentially necessary consequences" for Romania that will be fleshed out after talks with Mr Ponta in Brussels this week. Mr Ponta however is undeterred. He retorted that “Angela Merkel will not vote on July 29th and what the majority decides cannot be changed neither by Basescu, nor Merkel”.
Another sanction against Romania that is envisaged in Brussels is a freeze of EU funds. Payments are already suspended since July 1st on technical grounds such as faulty public procurement rules. This could be made permanent and linked to the political situation.
The most likely outcome of all this is that Romania’s bid to join the borderless Schengen area will be completely derailed. The Netherlands wee the only country opposing the move so far. Earlier this year the Dutch indicated they may lift their reservation if the EU commission’s report is positive. (The decision to let Romania has to be taken with unanimity among member states.) Now the Dutch position seems to gain Germany’s support. On July 8th, Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister, said "serious violations of the letter and spirit of EU values may raise question about the last steps to Romania’s full integration in the EU."
The fate of a high-level convict is another cause for concern for Romania’s fellow EU members. Responding to fears that his first move will be to set free Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister who is one of the rare high-level politicians behind bars for corruption, Crin Antonescu, the interim president, said on July 8th that this is out of question until the referendum or until elections. (An interim president cannot pardon criminals.) Mr Nastase is Mr Ponta’s political and academic mentor. He oversaw the prime minister’s PhD thesis, which the committee authorising diplomas had recently described as "plagiarised copy-paste style."
The diplomas committee was swiftly dismissed. And Mr Ponta is still in office, despite previous statements he would resign if proven guilty. For how much longer Mr Ponta can hold on to power remains to be seen. His next presence at an EU summit will certainly be awkward.