LUXEMBOURG (CN) – The European Union’s highest court wrapped up two days of hearings Tuesday on controversial changes to Romania’s justice system that some say undermine the rule of law.
Six separate cases, all sent by various Romanian courts to the European Court of Justice, were joined together for a marathon of hearings on Monday and Tuesday. They each involve changes to judicial law in the onetime Ottoman Empire territory state that critics say allow the Romanian government to punish judges and prosecutors.
The numerous legal questions involved resulted in an “extremely protracted discussion,” Court of Justice President Koen Lenaerts said as he pushed the nine parties participating to wrap up their statements on Tuesday afternoon.
In April 2019, the Romanian government passed a series of emergency measures which, among other things, increased the personal liability of judges, allowed politicians to challenge convictions and reduced the statute of limitations for some crimes. A number of the measures had direct benefits for politicians from the then-ruling Social Democrat party.
The announcement of the emergency measures brought Romanians into the streets in protest and judges announced a work slowdown.
“The government is trying to target judges,” Dragos Calin told the 17-judge panel in Luxembourg. Calin is a judge at the Bucharest Court of Appeals and was representing Romania’s Association of Judges.
“Independence of the judiciary is part of the core values” of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, said Mielle Bulterman, representing the Netherlands. The country joined a number of other EU member states and the bloc’s s cabinet body, the European Commission, to argue the Romanian legislation violated a safeguard measure known as the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification, or CVM.
When Romania joined the EU in 2007, the bloc implemented transitional periods for the country to meet certain EU standards, including thresholds for an independent judiciary and eradicating corruption.
A number of civil society organizations in Romania, including the Association of Judges and the Association of Prosecutors, have filed complaints in national courts arguing the government has violated the CVM, citing the emergency measures as evidence.
Romanian courts can send questions to the European Court of Justice about cases involving the application of EU law to local situations.
Political power in Romania changed hands following elections in November 2019, leaving Prime Minister Ludovic Orban’s National Liberal Party to defend the unpopular but advantageous measures before the EU’s highest court.
Romania argued that the measures were taken up by an elected body before the public and were necessary to expedite processes in an overwhelmed judicial system. During questioning, the country’s agent, Emilia Gane, delayed the hearing so frequently to confer with her colleagues from the Romanian Ministry of Justice that the court eventually invited State Secretary Cristian Bacanu to speak instead.
Bacanu’s statements were eventually cut short by Court of Justice President Lenaerts for veering off-topic.
Romania’s accession to the EU remains controversial. Both it and Bulgaria, which also joined the bloc in 2007, were poorer than the rest of the union and they were not permitted to join the Eurozone – the currency union – or the Schengen Area – a 26-state area of borderless travel – until they improved socioeconomic conditions and dealt with issues of corruption and organized crime. Twelve years later, neither has become full EU members.
Rule of law concerns have grown across Europe in recent years, as the European Commission has tried to curtail a trend of reduction in democratic norms in countries like Poland and Hungary. Romanian judges joined with their Polish counterparts earlier this month in protesting new restrictions on judges put forth by Poland’s right-wing government.
A magistrate for the Court of Justice is expected to issue a nonbinding advisory opinion on March 31, and an official ruling from the court will follow.