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Romania in hot water

July 13, 2012

Is Romania's Prime Minister Victor Ponta a threat to democracy? A power struggle between Ponta and President Traian Basescu has made other EU countries very uneasy.

An elderly Romanian man pins the European Union flag to a Romanian flag
Image: AP

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has worked hard in Brussels to explain the political events in his country and to avert what could become very negative consequences. For two days he held talks with EU Parliamentary President Martin Schulz, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and various members of the European parliament.

But it was only after the discussion on Wednesday night with Schulz, who like Ponta is a Social Democrat, that Ponta spoke to the public to defend his actions. These were "constitutional and met EU standards," he said. He was also obliging: "If any decision of the government or the parliament does not meet European standards, we are ready to take immediate action."

Schulz made no secret of their common party affiliation and called Ponta his friend. Nevertheless, he criticized some things, for example, "Important laws should not be changed by emergency regulations, but through a democratic process." To facilitate the removal from office of conservative President Traian Basescu, Ponta had changed several laws by emergency decree. This in particular is what has inflamed international criticism. After the meeting, Schulz said that he was now confident that there would be nothing "that the Commission could criticize as a violation of European standards."

Schengen accession could be delayed

The critique of the Commission came primarily from Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. Reding not only has expressed serious doubts about the constitutionality of Ponta's political steps, but has also threatened possible consequences: "If there are not very reliable reassurances and concrete actions by the Romanian government with regards to the reestablishment of the rule of law, then the country might lose years toward its full integration into the European Union," she said

The reason is that the EU monitors the constitutional situation in Romania, including the fight against corruption and organized crime. The regular monitoring is a humiliation for Romania. But, only if the results of these tests are satisfactory to the EU, can Romania count on joining the Schengen area, where there are no internal border controls. This means that the political power struggle in Romania could delay Schengen membership, in Reding's words, by years and extend the monitoring process.

Romanian President Basescu during a vist to Germany shaking hands with Chancellor Merkel
President Basescu, here with Chancellor Merkel, was impeached after questionable constitutional changesImage: picture-alliance/dpa
Romania's Prime Minister Victor Ponta and European Parliament President Martin Schulz (R) address a joint news conference after their meeting at the EU Parliament in Brussels July 11, 2012. Romania's prime minister assured European leaders on Wednesday that his government was fully committed to democracy and the rule of law after drawing fire for suspending President Traian Basescu by a vote in parliament. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM - Tags: POLITICS)
The EU has warned Romania to respect the rule of lawImage: Reuters

But Ponta rejects any connection between the internal political events in Romania and the Schengen issue. "We do not think this is fair and I hope this will not happen."

Political party positions

In any case, it is clear to Ponta after the two days in Brussels that the dispute with the EU also has a distinctly partisan political component. While the press appearance with fellow Social Democrat Schulz was generally favorable, Joseph Daul, leader of the conservative European People's Party in the European Parliament, did not receive Ponta at all.

Markus Ferber, who as a member of Bavaria's Christian Social Union belongs to Daul's political family party, also expressed sharp criticism of Ponta. He had altered constitutional rights out of revenge and put the constitutional court under pressure, Ferber said: "A massive political campaign is taking place against the president, which in my view is only motivated by the conviction of former Social Democratic Prime Minister Nastase on corruption charges. Whoever misuses policy to pursue vendettas leaves behind the democratic, constitutional system."

While many conservative MEPs accuse Social Democrats, of turning a blind eye, it was the other way round in a dispute with Hungary a year ago. At that time, leftist politicians had accused the Christian Democrats of ignoring the alleged lawbreaking by conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, when it came to changing the Hungarian constitution. Asked about parallels between himself and Orban, Ponta said in Brussels that the only thing they had in common was a first name.

By next week, the impression Ponta made in Brussels will become clear. On Wednesday, the Commission decides whether it will extend the monitoring of Romania. Before that, the most recent report will be published. This will serve as a basis for member states to decide whether they want to allow Romania into the Schengen area. For Ponta and his country, a lot is at stake.

Members of the parliament vote on procedural issues during a special session to vote on impeaching Romanian President Traian Basescu, not seen, in Bucharest, Romania, Friday, July 6, 2012. The governing coalition has vowed to go ahead with a vote to impeach President Traian Basescu, as the European Union expressed concern about Romania's rule of law. If Parliament suspends Basescu, there will be a referendum within 30 days.(Foto:Vadim Ghirda/AP/dapd)
There is a lot of mudslinging between different branches of governmentImage: AP

Author: Christoph Hasselbach / sgb
Editor: Gregg Benzow