The Economist face misto de Ponta : Putsch-up job (Ponta, lasaaa-ne, lasaaa-ne !)

Another rickety European country turns ugly—and also points to deeper problems in the European Union

JOINING the European Union means that a country has met—and will keep to—the EU’s strict standards of good government and respect for the rule of law. That is the theory, but practice is messier, as shown by a spat between Romania’s prime minister, Victor Ponta, and its president, Traian Basescu.

Both men have their flaws, but Mr Ponta (pictured above) is fighting dirty even by Romanian standards. He has exploited his new parliamentary majority to suspend Mr Basescu from office and override constitutional provisions governing his impeachment. He has seized control of several supposedly independent institutions. And he has changed the rules for a referendum to determine Mr Basescu’s fate on July 29th—although the constitutional court has thrown the president a lifeline by insisting on a high turnout (see article).

This is part of a worrying trend in Europe in which political leaders use an electoral mandate to entrench their power. It is not wholly new, nor confined to eastern Europe (Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi was a habitual offender). It is also worse outside the EU, especially in countries like Ukraine that now feel they have no chance of EU membership. But the events in Romania unpleasantly echo those in Hungary, where the prime minister, Viktor Orban, used his thumping election victory in 2010 to weaken independent institutions and pack his placemen into senior jobs.

Even worse, the reaction from the rest of the EU has been weak, as it was with Hungary. Political tribalism has played a disgraceful role, with left-of-centre politicians slow to criticise their party comrades in Romania and centre-right Europeans giving Mr Orban and Mr Basescu too easy a ride. But the sluggishness has also exposed three deeper flaws in the EU.

First, it shows the wider costs to Europe of the euro crisis. Preoccupied with collapsing economies, rocketing bond yields and possible bank runs, European leaders have understandably paid less attention to the nuances of the constitutional shenanigans in Hungary or Romania.

Second, the EU’s own shortcomings weaken its clout. Why should Mr Orban and Mr Ponta take lectures from an organisation that has been rewriting its own rules on the hoof, tampering with sovereignty without much care for voters and blithely ditching promises made only a few years ago? Some of the worst offenders against EU rules are older members.

Third, membership has its disadvantages. The EU has most leverage over countries that are desperate to join. Once in the club, with full voting rights, countries can answer back, leaving their peers with only the nuclear option of trying to expel them. Romania was bustled into the EU for political reasons in 2007, just as Cyprus was admitted in 2004 without settling its dispute with the north of the island. A longer wait and stiffer entry criteria would have been wiser.

No time for tribalism

None of this is an excuse for failing to act or stifling criticism. Complaints from the IMF and the EU have prompted Mr Orban to resile from his attack on Hungary’s central bank. One possible punishment for Romania would be to stop it joining the passport-free Schengen travel zone (it is one of only three new members still denied this privilege). Another would be to extend indefinitely the monitoring of Romania’s feeble justice system—which was supposed to end this summer. These and other options merit attention. But the leaders of Europe’s main powers should also reflect on their own role: if they pay so little attention to the democratic and legal niceties in Brussels, they should not be too surprised if people like Mr Orban and Mr Ponta think they can run wild at home.


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