The European Union's ability to protect democracy and the rule of law in its member states is being tested by a power-grab in Romania, where the centre-left government has unseated the president and the speakers of both houses of parliament.
Victor Ponta, Romania's prime minister, is to meet the EU's leadership today (12 July), having been summoned to Brussels by José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, to explain his government's sweeping legal changes. He is also scheduled to meet Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council.
A report on developments in Romania will be put before the European commissioners at their weekly meeting next Wednesday (18 July), when they will discuss whether emergency decrees issued by Ponta's government over the past ten days breach European Union law.
Ponta arrived in Brussels yesterday afternoon and had meetings with Martin Schulz, the president of the Parliament, and Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the centre-left group in the European Parliament, the Socialists and Democrats.
“I came to Brussels to reaffirm our commitment to European values,” Ponta said. “Our government has a majority in parliament and is ready to take all measures required by the [European] Commission.”
Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, warned yesterday, before a meeting with Titus Corlatean, Romania's justice minister, that she was “seriously concerned about the situation”.
At next Wednesday's meeting, the Commission will adopt its annual monitoring reports on Bulgaria and Romania, under the co-operation and verification mechanism (CVM) put in place after the two countries joined the EU in 2007. Recent events will “significantly change the text” of the Romania report, an official said. “Romania was going in the right direction but this could put everything into question.”
President Traian Basescu, who is on the centre-right, was suspended by Romania's parliament on Friday (6 July) and faces a referendum on 29 July on whether he should be impeached. The government issued a decree to lower the threshold for the referendum to succeed. The constitutional court ruled on Tuesday that the decree was unconstitutional, but the government has vowed to proceed with the vote.
“The parliament constitutionally suspended the president, and the Romanians will vote if they want to remove the president or return him to office,” Ponta said yesterday.
At his meeting with Reding, Corlatean warned against “politicising” the CVM. But the Commission has no doubt that several of the government's measures violate Romanian law and are therefore relevant for the CVM report.
“It was an unconvincing presentation [by Corlatean], and Reding has doubts whether the rule of law is taken seriously by the Romanian authorities,” a diplomat said.
Ponta's actions have provoked unease in Germany, where Angela Merkel, the chancellor, this week pledged to “support the EU in case it has to draw the necessary consequences”.
The disquiet is shared even within Ponta's own political family. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the leader in the German parliament of the opposition Social Democratic Party, said that the “frightening condition of political culture” in Romania had worsened. “It is unacceptable that in the space of a few days the powers of the constitutional court are curbed, parliamentary procedures are bent and key officials replaced overnight – in short, that the rules of parliamentary democracy are pushed beyond their limits.”
Schulz said: “Important laws should not be changed by emergency decree.” But he added: “After my meeting with the prime minister, I am optimistic that there is nothing which the Commission could criticise as a violation of European standards.”
A spokeswoman for Joseph Daul, the leader of the centre-right group in the Parliament, the European People's Party (EPP), said he would not meet Ponta until he complies with rulings from the constitutional court.