Romania Accused in EU Parliament of Eroding the Rule of Law

(Bloomberg) -- Romania faced sharp criticism from European Union lawmakers over disregard for the rule of law, highlighting the cross-party nature of the challenge in the bloc as it confronts a populist surge.

Three weeks after an unprecedented EU censure of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for eroding domestic democratic standards, members of the European Parliament took Prime Minister Viorica Dancila to task for undermining judicial independence. Orban belongs to the EU’s Christian Democratic party, while Dancila is part of the bloc’s Socialists.

“This is a European issue,” Esteban Gonzalez Pons, a Spanish member of the 28-nation Parliament’s Christian Democrats, said in a debate with Dancila in the Strasbourg, France-based assembly on Wednesday. “Listen to the people’s voice, Madame prime minister. They just want integrity, transparency and justice.”

Democratic backsliding in EU nations has risen to the top of the European political agenda as the bloc seeks to uphold fundamental values enshrined in its treaty. A trigger was the 2015 election victory of the Law & Justice party in Poland, which became the first EU country to face a probe into respect for democratic principles.

Romania is revamping the judiciary and easing punishment for corrupt officials
in a campaign that has sparked EU concerns the eastern European country of 20
million is letting up in its fight against graft. The country’s de facto leader is ruling-party boss Liviu Dragnea, who can’t become prime minister himself because of two criminal convictions.

“Don’t follow the bad Hungarian and Polish examples,” Guy Verhofstadt, Belgian leader of the EU Parliament’s Liberals, told Dancila. “The independence of the courts must be guaranteed, not undermined.”

In the EU Parliament, which holds elections in May 2019, the Christian Democrats are the biggest party and the Socialists are the second faction. Poland’s Law & Justice party belongs to the assembly’s third-largest group, the European Conservatives and Reformists.

As they gear up for next year’s legislative ballot, Europe’s mainstream political families are engaged in a balancing act meant both to show sensitivity to democratic norms in EU nations and to maintain party unity.

“We are following the latest developments in Romania with concern,” Frans Timmermans, a Dutch Socialist who is principal vice president of the European Commission, the EU’s regulatory arm, said in the debate. “The independence of Romania’s judicial system and its capacity to fight corruption effectively are essential cornerstones of a strong Romania in the European Union. We have seen substantial progress in the past, but things are now moving backward.”

In her remarks to the EU Parliament, Dancila defended her government’s rule-of-law record while saying she was open to dialog.

“Romania is a pro-EU country and please rest assured that it will not stray from its European path,” Dancila said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.