EC threatens Romania with harsher control mechanism if criminal code changes enforced
The European Commission will place Romania under a new control mechanism to try and avoid activating Article 7 of the EU Treaty (which would suspend some of the country’s rights as an EU member), if the changes to the criminal code, criminal procedure code and corruption law recently passed by the Parliament are enforced, EC first vice president Frans Timmermans wrote in an official letter to the Romanian authorities.
The new mechanism, called the Rule of Law Framework, would replace the Control and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which was imposed on Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 when they joined the European Union to monitor the two countries’ progress in justice reform and fight against corruption and organized crime. While politicians in Bucharest have been asking over the last two years that the CVM is lifted, the European Commission stressed in its latest CVM report that Romania actually made steps back in addressing the CVM recommendations and added new ones. Meanwhile, the ruling coalition in Romania ignored these warnings and continued their controversial reforms in the justice area, which external observers see as weakening the rule of law and fight against corruption in the country.
“In view of these major concerns, and if the necessary improvements are not made shortly, or if further negative steps are taken, such as the promulgation of the latest amendments to the criminal codes, the Commission will trigger the Rule of Law Framework without delay. This process – which foresees a dialogue to correct the concerns and avoid triggering Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union – would then for the time being replace the ongoing processes of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism,” reads Timmermans’ letter.
“The relevant benchmarks and recommendations under the Mechanism would be looked at under the Framework. Romania of course remains bound by its commitments taken at the time of accession and the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism benchmarks remain open until they are fully and satisfactorily met,” the letter goes on.
The EC official also states that the EC, as guardian of the EU Treaties, “will not hesitate to swiftly open proceedings under Article 258 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) against any related infringement of Union law it may identify.”
The letter is addressed to Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis, Senate president Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, Chamber of Deputies speaker Liviu Dragnea, and prime minister Viorica Dancila, according to G4Media, which published the document.
The document has four pages, two of which include a short presentation of the changes already made by the Romanian authorities in the area of justice and of the amendments to the criminal codes voted by the Parliament, which raise serious concerns.
Regarding judicial independence, the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism report of November 2018 identified serious issues concerning reduced legal guarantees for judicial independence. Subsequent Government Emergency Ordinances amending the Justice laws have increased these concerns. For example, the Romanian authorities have put in place a system of strict and extensive disciplinary and new liability of magistrates. Together with the special section in the prosecution office for investigating magistrates and in light of the recent track record of the Judicial Inspection, this results in a chilling effect on magistrates when it comes to exercising their independence.
Regarding the effective fight against crime, there is a clear trend to challenge the authorities, notably the High Court of Cassation and Justice and the National Anti-Corruption Directorate, which are essential for the fight against corruption. This trend points to a lack of loyal cooperation between state institutions, affecting the efficiency and independence of the judicial system. This lack of cooperation has also been shown in controversial nomination procedures, which have damaged confidence in the system. The long-standing Commission recommendation to put procedures in the public prosecution on a robust and independent basis continues to be ignored.
The amendments adopted by the Romanian Parliament on 24 April 2019 to the Romanian Criminal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Special Law on Corruption add to these concerns (…) These provisions risk creating a situation of de facto impunity for crimes, including corruption crimes, whereas, as underlined by the Venice Commission, Romania, like every other State, is under the positive obligation to ensure that its criminal system is effective in the fight against serious forms of crimes. The impact of these changes would be aggravated further by any legislation to allow extraordinary appeals in cases affected by the Constitutional Court ruling on panels of the High Court of Cassation and Justice, which in itself amounts to an interference in the independence of the judiciary and could affect the effective protection of the financial interests of the EU.
(Photo source: Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea)