Is Romania the new ’Sick man’ of the European Union?

, by Stefania-Felicia Pavel

 Is Romania the new 'Sick man' of the European Union?
Minister delegate for European Affairs Victor Negrescu talking about Romania’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Source: nineoclock.ro

Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) anamnesis

At first sight, in the European Union, there seems to be a contagious democratic enfeeblement, a relapse of corruption to which Romania is not immune either. The dawn of 2007 ‒ Romania saw its bid to European Union accession coming to fruition. Simultaneously, it was established the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, a newly-minted tool meant to assist and assess the progress of both Romania and Bulgaria regarding judicial reforms and their mitigation of endemic corruption [1].

Back then, the CVM was seen as a panacea for the genetically-embedded democratic shortages Romania displayed. However, a decade later, and the CVM report of November 2017 [2] testifies that the effects of the corruption fight are either lax or lacking. In other words, Romania’s corruption is relapsing, engulfing the state and sickening the rule of law.

Stages of illiberal ailment

In the aftermath of the last CVM report, there was observed not only a stalemate in curbing corruption, but a worrying backslide. The independence of the judiciary and the anticorruption policies went down a slippery slope. The very push from the brink where Romania was perched comes from the Social Democrat Party, whose majority ruling in the Parliament since December 2016 generated the propitious conditions for the illiberal democracy ‘virus’ to take roots.

First sign of illness came with the Romanian government’s plan to amend laws that secure the independence of the judicial system. By large, these alterations affect the statute of judges and prosecutors, the structure of the judiciary, and the Superior Council of Magistracy. The amendments unduly empower the Ministry of Justice to oversee the entire judiciary, locking political control over the branches that ought to have unfettered independence. A prime example of the illiberal disease spreading was a night-time meeting on 22nd November 2017, when a special legal commission voted favourably on the amendment of Article 9 of Law 303/2004 [3].

They hereby decided that judges and prosecutors are required to refrain from making any public statement or taking any public action that denounces members of the legislative or executive branches. [4] Ergo, enhanced power was granted to the Government dominated by the Social Democrats. So, now they can excessively influence the judiciary. Unfortunately, this can result in an irreversible decay of judicial independence and, ultimately, the undermining of the separation of powers within the Romanian state.

Another scourge of the constitutional state was the ‘parliamentary coup’ against the judiciary. This implied changes to be operated in the penal code and, respectively, the code of criminal procedure. All these modifications would render void corruption investigations of various members of the parliament. In the same vein, another potentially-lethal shot to the internal fight against corruption is the limitation of reporting on corruption cases. Other actions meant to weaken the anticorruption battle are the control on investigative journalism in general [5] coupled with the proposed decriminalization of some corruption offences. [6]

Experimental treatment from abroad

The internal derelictions of duty that impinged on the status quo of Romania raised mounting concern Europe-wide. The Romanian democratic malaise was also scrutinized by the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption monitoring body, the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO). GRECO sounded the alarm towards the snail-pace progress Romania registered with respects to preventing and countering corruption within the political echelons. From the initial prescription of a set of thirteen recommendations [7], Romania only partly enacted them via a too lenient conduct code for parliamentarians [8]. Moreover, it failed to overhaul the performance of the National Integrity Agency.

Seriously concerned by the undemocratic tendencies, GRECO resolved to request reporting on behalf of the Romanian authorities on the progress to be registered by the end of 2018 [9].

A concurring vision was expressed in the Joint Statement of European Commission President Juncker and First Vice-President Timmermans. They too stressed that the resilience and irreversibility of the advancements attained through the CVM are the very prerequisite for the abolition of the Mechanism. They see the contentious justice laws as the litmus test of the Romania’s healing of corruption. Avowing its support to safeguard the independence of the judiciary and combat corruption [10], the European Commission it is not by any means promising a new lease of life to Romania’s democracy. However, it is willing to continue treating another ‘Sick man’ of the European Union. Let’s all hope for a speedy recovery rather than a clinical death of democracy in Romania.

[1] European Commission. “Commission Reports on Progress in Romania under the Co-Operation and Verification Mechanism.” Press Release Database, 15 Nov. 2017, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-4611_en.htm.

[2] European Commission. “Report from The Commission to The European Parliament and The Council. On Progress in Romania under the Co-Operation and Verification Mechanism”. 15 Nov. 2017, https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/comm-2017-751_en.pdf.

[3] Law 303/ 2004 on the Status of Judges and Prosecutors, published in the Official Journal no. 826, 13 Sep. 2005, Bucharest, http://legislatie.just.ro/Public/DetaliiDocument/53074

[4] Lacatus, Corina. “Is Romania at Risk of Backsliding over Corruption and the Rule of Law?”. EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics, 27 Nov. 2017, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2017/11/27/is-romania-at-risk-of-backsliding-over-corruption-and-the-rule-of-law/.

[5] Deutsche Welle. “Romanian Judicial Reform: Critics Decry ‘Parliamentary Coup’, Threat to Democracy.” DW.COM, 24 Dec. 2017, www.dw.com/en/romanian-judicial-reform-critics-decry-parliamentary-coup-threat-to-democracy/a-41923648.

[6] Rankin, Jennifer. “Romania Braced for Huge Protests over ’Big Step Backwards’ on Rule of Law.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Jan. 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/19/romania-braced-for-huge-protests-amid-big-step-backwards-on-rule-of-law.

[7] Council of Europe. Group of States against Corruption. “Fourth Evaluation Round. Corruption Prevention in Respect of Members of Parliament”. Adoption: 8 December 2017, 78th plenary meeting, Strasbourg. Publication: 18 Jan. 2017. https://rm.coe.int/fourth-evaluation-round-corruption-prevention-in-respect-of-members-of/168077e159.

[8] Code of Conduct of Deputies and Senators. Adopted by the Romanian Parliament on 11 Oct. 2017. https://www.juridice.ro/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Codul-de-conduit%C4%83.pdf

[9] Council of Europe. Group of States against Corruption. “Decisions”. 78th GRECO Plenary Meeting, Strasbourg, 8 Dec. 2017. https://rm.coe.int/78th-greco-plenary-meeting-strasbourg-4-8-december-2017-decisions/168076f486

[10] European Commission. “Joint Statement of European Commission President Juncker and First Vice-President Timmermans on the Latest Developments in Romania.” 24 Jan. 2018. http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_STATEMENT-18-423_en.htm

Article originally published on http://www.europeanblog.de/is-romania-the-new-sick-man-of-the-european-union/

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