CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – It’s becoming almost routine: The leader of an Eastern European country is brought before EU lawmakers and harshly criticized for allegedly undermining the rule of law and democracy back home.
On Wednesday, it was the turn of Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, a Social Democrat. She was reprimanded in the European Parliament, meeting in Strasbourg, France, for legislative moves that allegedly limit the independence of judges and prosecutors while also strangling her nation’s fight against corruption.
Leaders from Hungary and Poland – which are ruled by conservative nationalist parties – came to Brussels and Strasbourg to face similar criticism earlier this summer. Those countries are facing sanctions by the European Union for passing a series of laws that critics say are undermining their judicial systems, silencing opposition voices and eroding democracy.
Romania was warned Wednesday that it too faces EU punishment unless it reverses course.
These cases also have become a clash between those who feel that the EU is interfering in internal politics and those who say the EU’s founding democratic principles are under threat.
In Romania, the Social Democrats won elections in 2016 and since then the party’s leaders have been accused of seeking to protect themselves from corruption charges. Among proposed changes, some corruption offenses could be decriminalized.
In particular, critics contend government measures to soften anti-graft laws and seize more control over judges and prosecutors are designed to protect the leader of the Social Democrats, Liviu Dragnea. He has been found guilty of vote rigging and abuse of office.
Outrage over corruption and the proposed changes led to massive demonstrations in Bucharest in August, the largest protests since the fall of Romania’s communist dictatorship in 1989. The protests became violent with protesters accusing riot police of using excessive force.
During Wednesday’s debate in the European Parliament, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission vice president, spoke about his work in Romania three decades ago to rid a “thoroughly corrupt system” that Romanians had inherited from the country’s longtime dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, “a morally corrupt dictator.”
He said Romania has made a lot of progress since then. Romania joined the EU in 2007.
“Why am I so worried today? Because in the final stretch of this long, painful marathon, we risk not getting to the finish line,” he said, “that we go in the other direction.”
On Monday, Timmermans threatened that the European Commission was prepared to take Romania to court to force it to change course.
“Let me be very clear: What is at stake is very important to the future of the European Union,” he said, “and very important for the future of the Romanian people.”
Dancila, the Romanian prime minister, defended her government and claimed that there was “a lot of fake news floating about” in the parliamentary debate.
She said Romanians backed her government, in large part because of her nation’s strong economic growth. She added that the judicial overhaul began in the parliament, which “expresses the will of the people.”
“I will not ignore the voice of our people,” she said.
But she said Romania was ready to take into consideration recommendations to halt the legislative changes. Those recommendations were issued by the European Commission for Democracy through Law, an advisory body on constitutional matters for the Council of Europe. The body is better known as the Venice Commission because it meets in Venice.
“We are a pro-European country,” the prime minister said.
Ska Keller, a leader of the Greens faction in parliament, charged that Dancila’s government was “de facto legalizing corruption.”
She urged Dancila that “now is the time to act” to avoid the opening of sanctions proceedings.
Sanctions against Poland and Hungary in theory could lead to the loss of their voting rights in EU affairs. But the EU’s heads of state would need to unanimously approve any sanctions, which makes it very unlikely they would be meted out.
Anti-EU members of parliament used Wednesday’s hearing to voice their frustrations.
“We need to respect the democratic choices of Romania,” said Nicolas Bay, a leader of the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group. His group was founded by French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. “It is up to Romanians to decide what future they want for their children.”
Romania’s Constitutional Court is scheduled to debate several justice reform bills in mid-October, including changes to its criminal codes, according to the Balkan Insight news service.
Romanian authorities have said the reforms are needed to make the judiciary more efficient and open, according to a recent report by the Venice Commission.
But the report noted that the changes are being proposed at a time of tension as authorities seek to crack down on corruption.
The report said Romania’s Anti-Corruption Directorate carried out numerous investigations against leading politicians for alleged corruption and related offenses. Those probes led to the convictions of a “considerable number of ministers or members of parliament,” the report said.
But the report also noted that acquittals in high-profile cases led many to question the tactics used by prosecutors and even judges.
Those criticisms were given more fuel when it was revealed that intelligence services and judicial institutions had agreed to cooperate, raising questions about how independent judiciaries and prosecutors are in Romania, the report found.
The report also found that high-ranking politicians and media campaigns had put pressure on and intimidated judges, and noted that the chief anti-corruption prosecutor was dismissed.
In sum, the report warned that the proposed changes increase the “risk of political interference in the work of judges and prosecutors.” It said there was a risk of undercutting “the independence of Romanian judges and prosecutors, and the public confidence in the judiciary.”