It is just over a year until Romania takes on the rotating EU presidency on 1 January 2019, and the country is looking with anticipation to the European Parliament to approve its accession to the Schengen area. And as it turns out, the country has powerful support base in the EP. Gianni Pittellan, president of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D Group), urged that Romania’s bid to join the passport-free zone be approved “as soon as possible.” Claiming that Romania, among other states along the EU’s eastern border, is already successfully protecting EU borders, the issue is being framed by S&D as one of economic importance and mutual trust between members.
The Group’s push comes after Romanian EU affairs minister Victor Negrescu argued that Romania meets the technical criteria for joining Schengen and portrayed the current delay as the result of selfish political games. He is not entirely wrong. In fact, the conditions for approval – external border checks, police cooperation and data protection – were officially met back in 2011. Bucharest’s hopes were raised again in September this year when the EU Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, recommended Romania be given the green light to join the Schengen zone. Avramopoulos notably cited the need to confront external threats to Europe from a place of unity.
So why has Romania’s exclusion continued? In part because of opposition from Germany and other member states. That opposition is far from petty: opponents Romania’s inclusion point to the enduring presence of the same issues that have blocked Romania’s entry since 2011.
Those critics emphasise a need for a more committed fight against corruption and a greater effort to protect the rule of law, and they are right to be concerned. After major advances since joining the EU a decade ago, Romania’s battle with corruption has taken a turn for the worse. Incredibly, successful reforms mandated by the EU are now being gradually reversed. Most recently, Romania’s lower house of parliament approved legislation to overhaul the justice system in blatant disregard of staunch international criticism from the European Commission, the US State Department – and Romania’s own president.
The changes being forced through by Romania’s ruling party include the establishment of a special unit to investigate criminal offences by judges and prosecutors, singling out these professions with a system specifically set up to attack them. The definition of prosecutorial activity will be further amended to exclude the term “independent”. They will also enforce restrictive criteria for prosecutors who seek to focus on corruption and organised crime.
The level of seniority required to join the National anti-corruption directorate (DNA), for example, has been raised from six to eight years; this will make it much more difficult to fill vacant jobs in the agency and could neuter the agency’s capacity to prosecute corruption. Tellingly, the DNA itself was not informed about the written draft of the bills before the press conference in which Justice Minister Tudorel Toader announced the new changes.
The driving force behind the legislative overhaul are Romania’s Social Democrats (PSD) and their chief Liviu Dragnea. Dragnea is linked to misuse of EU funds and accused of criminal conspiracy: last month, the DNA froze more than 27 million euros in assets belonging to Dragnea after it was revealed he misappropriated EU funds earmarked for infrastructure projects while council chairman of Teleorman county between 2000 and 2012. He denies reports that he has a financial interest in the company, but prosecutors suspect Dragnea of establishing a still-operational criminal gang made up of members of the public administration and businessmen.
Dragnea and his political allies may be acting out of self-interest, but hundreds of other Romanian politicians and businessmen will benefit from their moves to weaken Romanian rule of law. The PSD’s arguments echo those put forward by fugitive businessmen, who spend their time and resources to attack the DNA from afar. For example, businessman and MP Sebastian Ghita skipped the country to evade persecution until he was finally detained in Serbia in April this year. During his disappearance, his TV station broadcasted several statements deriding the DNA as a tool of “foreign agents” pursuing him for political reasons.
A similar method has been employed by Alexander Adamescu, currently fighting repatriation from London under a European Arrest Warrant to avoid bribery charges back home. Together with his lawyers, Adamescu has campaigned publicly against the charges, writing them off as politically motivated (and even anti-Semitic) persecution instigated by former PSD prime minister Victor Ponta. Ponta himself was indicted on corruption charges in 2015.
In response to attacks from Adamescu and others, DNA chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi complained to Euronews of “unbelievable attacks” against her institution by “an entire system formed of politicians and businessmen who feel threatened and who are interested in maintaining their control over the public resources.” Unfortunately, Adamescu appears to be just one part of a multipronged assault on the DNA’s credibility from the thousands of Romanian political and business elites implicated in fraud, bribery and corruption.
While those attacks have laid the groundwork for the PSD bills facing a senate vote this week, there is one final chance to prevent their implementation. Opposition parties and President Klaus Iohannis have already threatened to challenge the laws at the Constitutional Court, though it is unclear what the verdict would be. Regardless of whether or not they are ultimately put into place, the bills are just the latest chapter in the Romanian elite’s campaign to undermine judicial independence in the name of self-preservation.
In the light of these developments, the S&D Group’s lobbying for Romania has many in Brussels scratching their heads. Schengen accession is a privilege to be earned, not an inherent right. Leaders in EU capitals and the European Parliament should take an honest look at what has been transpiring in Bucharest and make it clear to Dragnea and his party that their actions are taking the country further away from closer integration.