A new report has found that Romania is by far the worst violator of human rights in the EU. The study, compiled by Due Process and the Centre for Research into Post-Communist Economies (CRCE), found that with a total of 272 violations of human rights found by the ECtHR from 2014 to 2017, Romania had over 100 more judgements against it than the next worst country in the EU. The vast majority of these violations were under Article 3 and Article 6 of the ECHR (238 of the 272 cases). In terms of inhuman or degrading treatment, Romania ranks consistently behind only Russia in the Council of Europe. For violating the right to a fair trial, the only countries among the 47 Council of Europe members with a worse record are Russia and Turkey.

The report, published on 1st August, comes at an opportune moment. Romania’s anti-corruption fight, long the subject of disturbing allegations of abuses of power and impropriety, has reached a critical juncture. Laura Kovesi, the long-serving and over-praised Chief Prosecutor at the Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) has been removed from her post, following a protracted battle of wills between President Iohannis, the Constitutional Court and Justice Minister Tudor Tudorel.

The latter of these three now has a crucial decision to make, with interviews for her replacement well under way. His choice has the potential to remove the taint of abuse from Romanian justice. This week it has been rumoured that Tudorel is delaying the appointment in order to prevent the President from exercising a veto over his choice. The choice will reveal whether or not Romania – and by consequence, Europe – is serious about the principle of the presumption of innocence and the proper course of justice.

The long-standing battle began in February of this year, when Tudorel recommended Kovesi be dismissed, accusing her of acting beyond her responsibilities and effectively abusing her position. This is backed up by a veritable catalogue of deliberate misdeeds. In February, senior DNA prosecutors working under the authority of Kovesi were recorded discussing attempts to fabricate evidence. This followed a recording last summer where she is heard urging subordinates to investigate the Prime Minister’s office in retaliation for their attempts to curb her authority. The odour of politicised justice hanging over her tenure eventually proved too much. So, where next for the anti-corruption battle?

The first step must be to sever the DNA’s toxic relationship with the Romanian Security Services (SRI). The two bodies, integral to the fight against corruption, developed a relationship that created the potential for abuse of the justice system. This self-serving alliance, cemented by a protocol of cooperation earlier this year, is concerningly reminiscent of communist-era justice, meted out by the dreaded Securitate. This relationship has reportedly extended to manipulating judges, with the SRI accused by a Parliamentary Commission of seeking to influence the decision of judges in DNA cases, even by using Facebook. Romania needs to repair not just its image, but the democratic accountability of these two very important for the country institutions.

Now is the time to ensure such steps are being taken. Any delay will be too late. In January 2019, Romania will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for a period of six months. During this time the country will seek to raise its profile within the EU to push for integration into the Schengen Area. This is the area comprising 26 European states that have officially abolished passport and all other types of border control with other Schengen states.

According to the official website of the European Commission, Romania is currently ‘in the process of joining the Schengen Area.’ Such affirmative wording should raise many more questions than it presently does, first of which is: what does this ‘process’ consist of?

Upon joining the European Union in 2007, Romania committed itself to integration into the Schengen Area as a top priority. However, before accession is granted, the EU requires several key criteria to be met. These vary widely, ranging from ensuring the independence of the courts to tackling cross-border crime, but there is one issue that is all-pervasive and particularly problematic in Romania: corruption.

In June 2011, Romania’s bid to join the Schengen Area was approved by the European Parliament. However, when their integration plans came before the Council of Ministers in September of the same year they were rejected due to shortcomings in anti-corruption measures.

Since then the DNA has predictably ramped up its efforts, and consequently won praise from EU officials and institutions. However, much of this praise comes in reaction to the reports that are simply handed over by Romanian officials, and there is much to suggest that EU officials take little notice of the means by which such results are procured.

Claims that Romania has been falsifying the results of its anti-corruption drive in order to secure accession to the Schengen zone should be a significant cause for concern for the EU. Many of the anti-corruption results that have secured the country praise are likely to have been a consequence of cut corners, incurred at the expense of human rights, civil liberties and judicial independence.

Moreover, Romania is one of several countries from the Eastern bloc to rely heavily on the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), with several high-profile legal cases in the UK. Last month, the Court of Justice of the European Union published a statement on a recent judgement regarding the European Arrest Warrant. Referring to the case of a Polish national subject to three European Arrest Warrants, it explained that the Irish Courts have the right to decide whether they believe the suspect in question would receive a fair trial in their home country.

This ruling casts doubt over the workability and viability of the EAW in its entirety across the EU, especially in countries like the UK, which will necessarily be reviewing its arrangement with Brussels after leaving the European Union. The Due Process report states that the number of extraditions from the UK to Romania is extremely high, with 358 surrenders between 2013 and 2016. The UK surrendered the third largest number of people to Romania during this period, behind only Poland and Lithuania.

Who is chosen to replace Kovesi, and the manner in which the EU monitors their work, must serve as the litmus test for both Romania’s compatibility with European standards of justice, and the legitimacy of the EU’s arrest warrants. Without sufficient progress, serious questions must be raised as to why Europe is allowing its recently acceded members to dilute the value of human rights on which the continent prides itself.