The EU takes a huge risk in Romania

Even in the midst of an increasingly scary and complex crisis like that of the failing currency union, the EU has shrunk from decisive action. But the EU institutions have reacted with speed and firmness to the escalating crisis in Romania

Victor Ponta with Jose Manuel Barroso
Tom Gallagher
On 18 July 2012 10:00

Even in the midst of an increasingly scary and complex crisis like that of the failing currency union, the EU has shrunk from decisive action. Its default position on this, and on plenty of other less grave issues, is not to confront reality.

It explains why the dreams of British Europhiles like Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, that the EU can be a world force in which they enjoy continuous power without having to pay attention to voters, have turned to dust.

But the EU institutions have reacted with speed and firmness to the fast escalating crisis in its newest member, Romania.

A 22-page report from the European commission published today says the new government, led by Ponta, has flouted the constitution, threatened judges, illegally removed officials in an arbitrary manner, and tampered with the democratic system of checks and balances in order to try to secure the impeachment of President Traian Basescu.

It indicates that those at the top believe that procrastination, summed up by the metaphor, ‘kicking the can down the road’ is simply not an option there.

The crisis erupted because of the massive over-reaction by the new government of Victor Ponta to court decisions sentencing political figures, previously thought to be beyond the reach of the law, to prison terms. Adrian Nastase was the emblematic figure. The world of the man, who as Prime Minister from 2000- to 2004 carried out the key negotiations with the EU for membership, seemed to have collapsed and he attempted suicide as he was due to be led off to prison on June 20th.

Romania had joined the EU on terms that largely suited a restricted post-communist elite that benefited from discretionary privatisations of the economy while pulling the strings in many of the key institutions of state. A once lively independent media was mainly captured by the new power magnates. Parliament devised rules for itself that made challenges from new social forces very hard and protected its members from prosecution.

Aware that there was a real danger of Romania becoming a festering political slum within the EU, Brussels officials showed firmness in one key area, the justice sector. The Romanian elite agreed, in 2004, to Brussels having oversight of the justice system even after entry in 2007.

The EU has shown consistency by insisting on a proper separation of powers and the gradual creation of a justice system not impeded from going after top politicians, businessmen, civil servants and judges who face credible charges of corruption.

For the last eight years there has been a messy power struggle between the old guard, determined to hold the line against encroachments on their power, and a small group of reformers in the justice system and the party of Democratic Liberalism that held office until April. They have mainly been sustained by President Traian Basescu, a rough-hewn and unconventional former ship captain in the Romanian merchant navy.

Basescu is hated by much of the elite because he defected from their ranks and decided to try and make his legacy the cleaning up of one of the most venal political systems in Europe. In the process, leading figures in his own party have not been spared. This led to a string of defections that explain why his most implacable enemies in the Social Liberal Union were able to return to government this spring.

Their original intentions had been to wait until parliamentary elections in the autumn before removing Basescu. They were predicted to produce a big win for them due to the unpopularity of tough austerity measures that Basescu had championed in 2010-11. But panic set in with the prison sentence for Nastase. Prudence was ditched entirely when the British journal Nature published an investigation revealing that 85 pages of the new Prime Minister’s thesis had simply been copy-pasted from other sources.

It was decided that Basescu would have to be eliminated from the political game straight away. But that could only be accomplished by neutralising bodies like the Constitutional Court and the Ombudsman, seizing control of the official gazette so that the government could publish or suppress whatever laws and rulings it pleased, and removing the heads of the bicameral parliament in contravention of the rules for this.

Last Thursday evening, the Romanian ambassador in Berlin was summoned to Chancellor Merkel’s office to be told of the German government’s ‘extreme concern’ about these decisions in a country where the President and Parliament were, under the Constitution, supposed to share power. The United Stated had already expressed its misgivings and, on seeing Ponta earlier that day, the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso had ‘underlined that the necessary checks and balances in a democratic system must be guaranteed’.

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