Romania’s government has been accused of seeking to turn the clock back on years of democratic reforms as it prepares to take charge of the European Union’s rotating presidency for the first time on 1 January.
The European commission warned the government in November that it was backtracking on progress made since joining the EU in 2007, while the European parliament passed a resolution voicing “deep concerns” at legislation that has the potential to weaken the rule of law. MEPs also condemned “the violent and disproportionate intervention by police” in Bucharest in August, when police used water cannons and teargas to disperse anti-corruption protesters.
One proposal being closely watched is an amnesty to protect politicians from prosecution for corruption, such as Liviu Dragnea, regarded as the most powerful man in Romania. A businessman-turned-politician, Dragnea is the leader of the Social Democratic party but was barred from becoming prime minister when his party won power in 2016 because of a conviction for vote-rigging.
“Dragnea will be one of the main beneficiaries of the amnesty if adopted,” said Bianca Toma, programme director at the Romanian Centre for European Policies. Even if the amnesty were only in force “for one minute” before being overturned, she said it would still wipe the slate clean for Dragnea and potentially 15,000 others, depending on how the decree was drafted.
“Adopting such a decree on amnesty would be outrageous,” Toma said. “I believe that the civil society would react, the citizens would react, the EU would react, because once this kind of decree is adopted it would be very hard to undo the consequences.”
Existing fears about backtracking on corruption were heightened in July when the head of the national anti-corruption directorate (DNA), Laura Codruța Kövesi, was sacked after a five-year stint where she oversaw a series of convictions against ministers and mayors that exposed corruption and abuse of office.
Dragnea and his supporters have accused a “parallel state”, including police, prosecutors and judges, of trying to bring the government down – a view that is rejected by the European commission.
Clashes over the rule of law have heightened political infighting. Romania’s president, Klaus Iohannis, declared last month that his country was not ready to take over the rotating presidency, saying there was “no chance of a good government … or proper involvement in European affairs”.
Iohannis, a former schoolteacher who was mayor of the Transylvanian city of Sibiu, is a member of the centre-right Liberal party and has previously warned that his country risks the EU’s rule of law sanction procedure, which currently embroils Poland. The prime minister, Viorica Dăncilă, is from the Social Democratic party and widely seen as a proxy for Dragnea, who is believed to be behind a ceaseless game of musical chairs at the top of government.
Since the coalition took office in January 2017, 70 ministers have come and gone, according to the political analyst Radu Magdin at the Smartlink consultancy. He counts three prime ministers, six economy ministers, four changes at defence (one minister returned) and three people in charge of EU affairs.
“The main vulnerability for this government is competence,” he said, adding that many ministers had been promoted from local politics “without proper training or proper vision” and lacking knowledge of due process in dealing with civil society, business and foreign countries.
Turbulence may help explain why Romania has asked for little of the €30.8bn in EU cash earmarked by Brussels over 2014-2020 to build roads, railways, metro lines and boost the economy in what remains one of the EU’s poorest countries. To date, projects worth €5.8bn (a mix of EU and Romanian funds) have been approved by Brussels, prompting criticism from opposition politicians that the government is failing to reap the benefits of EU membership.
In Brussels there was even a brief discussion about skipping Romania’s presidency and going straight to Finland, which takes its turn in July. One EU diplomat said the government was “completely focused on domestic issues”, but “somehow they will survive” the presidency. Magdin said “the political noise” would not affect the presidency, because of “seasoned diplomats” in Brussels and the experienced Europe minister, the veteran foreign ministry official George Ciamba, who was appointed in November.
It helps that the presidency is not what it used to be – the EU has had a permanent president and foreign affairs chief since 2009, lightening the workload for member states in the chair. Romania’s presidency will also be unusually short, as European elections in May will bring EU lawmaking to a standstill by the spring. The UK’s departure from the European Union on 29 March is being handled by the commission.
But the presidency plays an important role in organising the EU’s daily business and allows a country to sell itself to its neighbours.
Siegfried Mureşan, a Romanian centre-right MEP, argues it would have been a mistake for the EU to have skipped over Romania, a country where support for the EU is higher than average. More than half of Romanians (52%) think the EU is going in the right direction, while only 24% feel the same way about their country, according to a recent poll by Eurobarometer.
The MEP recalls a banner he saw at a recent demonstration in Bucharest – a blue flag with the word “help” written in gold stars. “It symbolises that the people of Romania expect help from Europe in their struggle against local politicians to defend the rule of law.”
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