By Amandine Charley. Originally published on 2012/08/08

All eyes are fixed on Romania these recent days, as Romanian newly appointed Prime Minister Victor Ponta is corroding democracy in the country. Since his inauguration as Prime Minister after a newly elected majority in the Romanian Parliament last may, Ponta has engaged in a political battle with the president Traian Basescu.

Struggle that caught EU’s attention

At the beginning of July, the Romanian Parliament adopted a series of emergency decrees reducing the prerogatives of the Constitutional Court in order to remove Basescu from power more easily, thus bypassing democratic rules.

The validation by the Romanian Constitutional Court of the impeachment process of President Basescu as well as a referendum announced for 29 July deeply concern EU officials, namely EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who summoned Victor Ponta to Brussels on Thursday the 12th of July to give an explanation. During the meeting, Barroso and Van Rompuy expressed their concern about the situation in Romania and reaffirmed the duty to meet EU standards. Herman Van Rompuy stressed that rule of law has to be carefully respected.

This political struggle is all the more significant while Bucharest has been granted numerous aids by Brussels in the framework of a special monitoring due to concerns over corruption and independence of the judiciary. In the same way, Romania is about to benefit from €5 billion by European Bank of Investments (EBI) and by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Moreover, the European Commission has just delivered its report on 18 July on Romania’s progress on judicial reform, corruption and organized crime and part of regular reviews since it entered the EU in 2007.

As expected, the report castigates the recent events in Romania. Even if the European Commission acknowledges some progress has been made in reforming the political and judicial system, the report scathingly stresses that the Commission still raises serious doubts as to its sustainability and irreversibility. Therefore, this internal fight is not helping Romania’s image inside EU, already considered as being one of the worst pupils of the 27 EU members for its political instability.

Victor Ponta justified his decisions by saying that Basescu blocked laws proposed by the leftist coalition which he is from. He ensured his will was not to put rule of law in danger and stated he was greatly committed to democracy.

Challenging EU diplomacy and action?

The Romanian crisis tests the EU’s response towards states that clearly endanger democracy. During the meeting with Victor Ponta, EU officials reasserted that Brussels is closely monitoring the situation in Romania. Many EU member states welcome the warning that the EU is sending Romania. But many also expect more than a declaration. The newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung congratulates EU officials for not punishing Romania with a total boycott as they did with Austrian government in 2000. Everybody also bears in mind the Hungarian crisis last year during which EU adopted a different position and preferred to act with gradual warnings, non-respect of treaty procedures and the holding of funds.

Political observers perceive this experience as a great lesson for EU field of action. According to political analysts, this approach allows EU officials to act while maintaining diplomatic relations with the Member States. This is a major step forward towards EU being more than a discursive and normative power.It is worth underlining that Romanians expect a lot from EU to help them to access to a better democracy.

As the Romanian daily newspaper Adevărul writes “Now we have all western countries against us. They can see the immaturity of Romanian democracy because one thing is clear, except for our backyard squeals, is that we, citizens, failed to defend democracy and rule of law. Luckily, foreign countries are present”. Many citizens thus rely on EU to solve the problem and impose democratic principles on the government.

One of the main problems the EU may face in dealing with the Romanian government is the extreme reaction of some member states. Germany, for instance, clearly opposes Romania. The German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Guido Westerwelle, stated that Germany expressed an old frustration well known by the Old Continent: “Romania was not ready to enter EU in 2007 and does not deserve to remain in the club in 2012”. This also reflects the recent French and Dutch refusals to let Romania and Bulgaria enter the Schengen Area and raises the spectre of an increasing double-standards Union.

One thing is sure: if EU wants to act effectively to defend democracy and the rule of law in countries that constantly challenge it, it has to remain united and speak in one voice, which EU officials quite succeeded in doing on July the 12th in Brussels.

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