The United States, Germany, France and nine other countries warned Romania Wednesday not to pass emergency laws that risk weakening the country’s justice system and its ability to fight corruption.
The European Commission sent a similar message to Bucharest, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans declared that Brussels would take action “within days” and use “any means at its disposal” if the legislative changes are made.
Romanian media reported Wednesday that the Social Democrat-led government is preparing to amend the country’s penal code through an emergency ordinance, which critics say is meant to give a helping hand to politicians convicted of corruption.
The highly unusual joint warning by 12 countries generally considered close allies of Romania — Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United States — reflects widespread international concern that Bucharest has been backsliding on the rule of law and corruption.
“We are deeply concerned about the integrity of Romania’s justice system, which has been buffeted by unpredictable modifications that do not further Romania’s efforts to consolidate judicial progress,” the joint statement said.
“To the contrary, the cumulative effect of these modifications carries the risk of slowing the fight against corruption and undermining judicial independence,” it added.
At a press conference in Brussels, Timmermans said he wants “to warn against any governmental action that would disrupt the Romanian judicial system by creating a systemic de facto impunity for high office holders who were sentenced for corruption,” adding that “such a move would compel the Commission to act swiftly.”
Of particular concern are proposed amendments to the penal code that would reduce the statute of limitations for multiple offenses. That measure would bring to an end several corruption cases. Among those seen as benefiting from such a move is Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea, who was sentenced last year in a case involving fake jobs for party workers.
The government argues the emergency ordinance is necessary to bring the penal code into line with a recent decision from the constitutional court.
Wednesday’s warning from Brussels is the latest in a series of increasingly critical comments from EU institutions about rule of law in Romania.
“Romania urgently needs to put the reform process back on track,” Timmermans said. “This means going forward not backwards and refraining from any steps which reverse the progress accomplished over the last years.”
Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă said she is “surprised” by Timmermans’ comments, arguing her government is open and transparent about its measures, Romanian media reported.
In an interview with POLITICO in February, Dăncilă accused Western European leaders of double standards in criticizing her country over corruption and a crackdown on anti-government protests.
Regarding the message from the 12 partner countries, Dăncilă said she wanted to talk with the ambassador of each state “but they refused.” Meanwhile, the countries’ own statement said that “regrettably, official requests for a dialogue on these matters have remained unanswered since January of this year.”