The history of last week's coup d'état in Romania truly started on 20 June when Adrian Nastase, a former socialist prime minister, was jailed for two years.
That ruling determined the decision by the ruling alliance – the three-party Social-Liberal Union (USL) – to launch a brutal and very well co-ordinated assault against the institutions of state. The USL's ultimate goal has been to take over the judicial system and, thus, to rescue other members facing criminal charges.
Blocking the way to total control were the top four people in the state: the president, the speakers of the two houses of parliament, and the ombudsman. In just four days last week, during which the law and the constitution ceased to rule, all four were dismissed.
The speakers of the two houses of parliament were voted out on 3 July (in violation of house rules that a speaker's removal can be triggered only by the party that nominated him). But the most important step – taken on the same day – was the replacement of the ombudsman, the only man who could have challenged the emergency ordinances that the government adopted over the following days.
The ombudsman, Gheorghe Iancu, was replaced with a government loyalist. This was contrary to the law, as the ombudsman can be revoked only following “a violation of the constitution and of the laws, (...) upon the joint report of the parliamentary judicial committee”. The committee was not asked to issue a report; Iancu was simply voted out.
On 4 July, the government of Victor Ponta adopted an emergency ordinance (number 38/2012) stripping the constitutional court of its right to check decisions of the upper and lower houses of parliament. This clearly breached the constitution, which states (in Article 115/6) that “emergency ordinances cannot be adopted in the area of constitutional laws and cannot interfere with the regime of the fundamental institutions of the state”.
The next day, 5 July, the ruling alliance claimed in parliament that the president, Traian Basescu, had violated the constitution. The Senate's new speaker asked the constitutional court to issue its “opinion” by noon the next day – adding that, whatever the court's opinion, the parliament would press ahead with a vote to suspend the president. The constitution does not provide for the court to be subject to any deadline (and no such a request has been made since 1990).
That evening, the Ponta government adopted another emergency ordinance (number 41/2012) modifying the referendum law, to ease impeachment of the president. Previously, the president could be dismissed only by a majority of citizens registered on the electoral lists. The new law lowered the threshold, to a majority of votes cast. The threshold was changed only for impeachment of the president – for other referendums to be valid, it remains the case that the majority of people on the electoral list must vote. (On Tuesday, 10 July, the constitutional court ruled that the changes were unconstitutional; the government says it will press ahead regardless, on the basis of its emergency ordinance.)
On 6 July, the constitutional court issued its ‘opinion': it did not find the president responsible for any “serious” breach of the constitution. One of the judges of the constitutional court said she had been threatened and filed a complaint with the attorney-general's office.
But the opinion of the constitutional court was not even read out in parliament when, hours later, parliamentarians met to vote. They suspended the president and set a date for a referendum on whether or not to dismiss the president on 29 July. The decision was published the same day in the Official Journal – which had been moved under the authority of the prime minister on 27 June, again with the use of an emergency ordinance. In this way, the government gained control of all official documents, acquiring the power to decide what is published and when.
The suspension procedure lasted just two days. Laws have been changed overnight. In 1990, the then president called in bat-wielding miners to help overthrow the government; in the EU's Romania, the miner's bat has been replaced by the votes of MPs.
Can the EU allow this to happen? It should not. What it should do is to fill the shoes of Romania's missing ombudsman, and pressure the government to withdraw its emergency ordinances, respect the constitution and the constitutional court's decisions. And it should invoke Article 7 of the EU treaty, enabling it to sanction the Ponta government. The Ponta government is an example of why Article 7 exists.
Monica Macovei is a Romanian centre-right member of the European Parliament. She was justice minister in 2004-07.