Responding to accusations from the European Commission’s first Vice-President Frans Timmermans about threats to the rule-of-law in Romania, the country’s Prime Minister, Viorica Dăncilă, lashed out at European Parliamentarians on October 3 saying any hint that the government in Bucharest was threatening the judicial and constitutional codes of the country was “fake news”.
With both Poland and Hungary already being challenged by the Commission over similar accusations and only three months before Romania takes over from Austria on the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, Romania’s increasingly embattled government drew the ire of the Commission and MEPs in Strasbourg after the Romanian government spent the better part of a year overhauling it justice codes, many of which are seen by Brussels as threats to the independence of the judiciary.
“We are all aware the initiatives taken by Romanian authorities since 2017 as regards to the reform justice laws, the criminal procedure and criminal codes and the processes regarding the judiciary have led to concerns from a wide range of stakeholders both inside Romania and internationally,” Timmermans told MEPs.
During a hearing by the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Dăncilă heard MEPs accusing her government of violating EU norms by tabling changes to legislation that will affect the independence of prosecutors and remove some corruption offences from Romania’s criminal codes.
According to the country’s media, Romania’s Social Democrat-led government is trying to change the law in order to prevent party leader Liviu Dragnea from going to jail after being sentenced in July to 3.5 years in prison in a second corruption case.
“Romania is a European country and will surely not stray from the pro-European path and I tell you this as a former colleague. Please trust Romania,” Dăncilă said when addressing her former colleagues in the European Parliament, before claiming that her government has brought economic growth to the country and claiming that her compatriots “love this government”.
Dialogue with Brussels
Romania will, however, not try to keep maintain relations with Brussels at any cost, according to Dăncilă. “We will make right what needs to be made right. There will be dialogue.”
Brussels, however, has not been amused by the ongoing changes to Romania’s criminal code, particularly after Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis sacked chief anti-corruption crusader Laura Codruța Kövesi in July to honour a constitutional court ruling which Kövesi said would leave prosecutors exposed to political interference.
Kövesi had led Romania’s DNA anti-corruption agency since 2013. Under her management, conviction rates related to corruption cases rose sharply in one of the European Union’s most corrupt states, which won her praise from Brussels who has Romania’s judiciary under special monitoring.
At the time of her dismissal, Kövesi blamed the country’s ruling politicians for attempting to block the authority of the judiciary and soften criminal-related bills in parliament as part of a way to protect themselves from prosecution for corruption-related cases.
Romania’s Justice Minister Tudorel Toader had called for Kövesi’s dismissal in February, saying she had exceeded her authority by carrying out “a political witch hunt that damaged Romania’s image abroad”.
Responding to Dăncilă’s claims that the Commission is dealing in “fake news”, Timmermans was blunt in his assessment saying, “I would like to recall that the track record of the anti-corruption prosecution was a central reason for a more positive assessment of Romania that the Commission made back in our cooperation and verification mechanism report back in January 2017,” before adding, “In May, the Romanian parliament launched a procedure to amend the criminal code. The amendments have been challenged before the constitutional court and judgments are expected in mid-October.”
Timmermans also said that the Venice Commission, the advisory body of the Council of Europe that is composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law, is in the process of drawing up their own conclusions on the amended codes and are scheduled for release in mid-October.
In his assessment of the current situation in Romania, which he sees as a backlash against anti-corruption efforts, Timmermans said, “The climate needed for reform has deteriorated due to the secret protocols between the Prosecution (the government authorities) and the Intelligence Services.”
EPP attacks S&D and liberals for being silent
The Social-Democrats and Liberals in the European Parliament have come under fire for doing little to speak out against the roll-back of the rule-of-law in Romania. Speaking during a plenary debate Esteban González Pons said the Social-Democrats and the Liberals “have chosen to be an accomplice and keep silent on the current situation in Romania. Romanians fought against Communism for their liberties. They tore down a tyranny to build a democracy…Such brave and noble efforts should not be undermined,” said González Pons.
The S&D Group’s vice-president responsible for civil liberties, justice and home affairs, Josef Weidenholzer responded to González Pons’ criticism, saying, “Romania has made giant leaps forward during the 11 years since it joined the EU. In terms of economic growth and the strengthening democratic institutions and the fight against corruption. We need to make sure that this progress does not stall or go backwards.”
Weidenholzer later added that the S&D expects the Romanian governments to uphold an independent judiciary that makes a clean break with the country’s powerful intelligence services, many of whom are still believed to have links to the old Nicolae Ceausescu-era Securitate.