Top EU and Western officials issued unprecedentedly harsh warnings to Romanian authorities on Wednesday demanding that rule of law be respected in the country and a key candidacy for a top EU prosecutorial job go on unimpeded. Romanian authorities responded in a just as harshly worded manner. But both parties stopped short from turning escalating rhetoric into action. The spiraling tensions are all the more so critical as Romania is the current holder of the rotating EU Council presidency.
Information and rumors have been piling for days that the Romanian government was preparing two emergency ordinances bringing changes to the criminal codes of the country. The ordinances have long been pressed for by Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the governing Social Democrats (PSD).
- Critics have warned that these decisions would be a final push in a series of PSD actions which have largely subdued the fight against corruption and increased political control over judiciary issues.
- The ordinances are believed to be aimed at helping Dragnea and his cronies escape political convictions. Dragnea received a suspended sentence for electoral fraud several years ago. This is why he cannot serve as prime minister, leaving the job to puppet PM Viorica Dancila.
Also these days, a top Romanian prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, is a key runner for the job of EU chief prosecutor. Kovesi, who had run Romania's National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA) through the years of major high profile cases, until she was forced out of office under the pressure of the Justice minister, has been seen as a front runner by many and has received major support in the European Parliament. But Romanian authorities have impeded her run and, more recently, a criminal inquiry was launched against her.
- As part of the inquiry, prepared by a newly established prosecuting body seen by many as a means of political control over the judiciary, a "judicial control" was set on Kovesi's name. That meant she could not leave the country and thus could not go through procedures in Brussels for the EU job.
- She challenged the "judicial control" and a higher court decided on Wednesday to lift it. She can now go on with the procedures.
The rhetoric spiral on Wednesday
As Romania's government was preparing to hold his session on Wednesday and fears intensified about the possible ordinances, European commissioners were convening in college to discuss the situation of the rule of law in Romania. The occasion saw EC first vice-president Frans Timmermans publicly warning the Romanian government not to take measures which would affect the judiciary and create impunity for high level officials sentenced for corruption.
- Timmermans said he had discussed with PM Dancila repeatedly and warned that should there be a reason for the EC to react immediately, they would do so within days. He said he signaled some 40 problems to the Romanian authorities.
- Timmermans also said on Wednesday that Romania should have solved its issues with the rule of la before joining the EU - a lesson that the Union should learn before a future enlargement.
Meanwhile, as Laura Kovesi was still waiting for a resolution on her challenge to the judicial control, EP President Antonio Tajani read a letter of support for Kovesi at the beginning of the EP plenary session. He said he was worried about measures taken against Kovesi in Romania and reaffirmed the EP support for her candidacy for the job of EU chief prosecutor.
Further upping the stakes, the embassies to Romania of 12 friendly countries including NATO and EU partners such as the US, Germany and France issued a joint statement urging the Romanian government to abstain from changes that would weaken the rule of law.
- The embassies of Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United States said they as Romania's allies and partners were deeply worried for the integrity of the Romanian judiciary system, which has been shaken by unpredictable changes. And they warn that the emergency ordinances may have a negative impact on the independence of justice.
The first Romanian reactions were Dancila's and her Justice minister Tudorel Toader's. While Toader made a series of confusing statements urging the Commission that each part complies with their "competence, dignity and national specifics".
But Dancila used a way more aggressive tone first in statements related to the positions of Timmermans and Tajani, then about the ambassadors' letter.
- Following Timmermans' statements, Dancila said she was surprised about them as they have nothing to do with reality, given that her government was fully open about steps due to be made.
- About Tajani's statement, she said nobody, not even the president of the European Parliament, "can't ask for the start or closure of an inquiry". She referred to "political decision makers" who can't "ask us to stop criminal inquiries".
She thus opened a line of communication further followed throughout the day by PSD and government officials, that the statements of the EU officials were motivated by political and electoral interests, given the upcoming EU elections.
- For the ambassadors of 12 EU partners, Dancila's message was even more caustic as she told them that she would not allow them to set up the agenda of the prime minister. She urged them to "show respect to Romania" and - as if they were talking for themselves and not for the governments they represent - she said that she held direct dialogue with her counterparts form the respective countries.
Later in the day, the PSD issued its own statement saying that the letter of the 12 ambassadors was in "explicit breach of the provisions of the Vienna Convention". The governing party described the letter as showing "lack of courtesy towards a government designated by a lawful parliamentary majority" and which holds a "consistent pro-European and pro-Atlantic agenda".
- The party urged Foreign minister Teodor Melescanu and fellow minister Anna Birchall to be more active in open dialogue with the ambassadors.
Also on Wednesday, the section representing judges at the Superior Council of Magistrates (CSM) claimed political pressure was put by European leaders, which would affect the independence of Romanian justice. The CSM sections' letter in this regard claimed that through their actions and statements EP officials Antonio Tajani (EP President), Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE) and Manfred Weber (EPP) were putting pressure on the judge dealing with Kovesi's case.
As the day ended, the government spokesman said no emergency ordinances to change the criminal laws were adopted during the government session.
And a court lifted the judicial control measures against Kovesi, which she had challenged as being aimed at impeding her candidacy for the EU job.