Spectre of corruption heightens EU fears over rule of law in Romania

Concerns rise as Bucharest prepares to take over bloc’s presidency

In the improbable setting of rural south-eastern Romania, one of Europe’s largest triumphal monuments soars into the sky. The white limestone structure creates a feeling of déjà vu in those who know Trajan’s Column in Rome. The Romanian version is the Tropaeum Traiani, or Trajan’s Trophy. It commemorates the Roman emperor’s victory over the native Dacians in AD102, and the area’s absorption into the Roman empire.

Most Romanians buy into the notion of a mixed Roman-Dacian heritage celebrated at the site of Trajan’s Trophy. Speakers of a Romance language such as French, Italian or Spanish, they take pride in the way the monument connects them to the origins of western European civilisation.

However, it is precisely in western Europe that concern is growing about modern Romania.

Recent events, including extensive police violence last week against anti-corruption protesters in Bucharest, are stirring fresh doubts among western European governments and EU authorities about the rule of law in Romania and the independence of its democratic institutions. Similar misgivings apply elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, especially Hungary and Poland.

The fundamental concern is that, under its Social Democrat-led government, Romania is backsliding on EU values that it ought to be promoting as it prepares to take over the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency in January.

Romania’s elites are looking forward eagerly to this honour: it will be the nation’s first presidency since it entered the EU in 2007. Moreover, it will be inaugurated exactly one month after another national feel-good moment: the centenary, on December 1, of the 1918 union of the then Romanian kingdom with Transylvania, a region acquired from the collapsed Habsburg Empire. Shortcomings in the areas of judicial reform and the fight against corruption mean that Romania, like Bulgaria, is still under a special EU monitoring mechanism almost 12 years after it joined the bloc.

Romanian government ministers bitterly resent this procedure. But the chances that the EU might lift it received a blow in July when Laura Codruta Kovesi, the head of Romania’s independent anti-corruption agency, was fired after what she described as a politically motivated campaign to neutralise her efforts at prosecuting corruption in high places. Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s president, admired in western Europe for his courage in speaking up for the rule of law, was unable to protect Ms Kovesi because the nation’s constitutional court ruled that he lacked the power to prevent her dismissal.

During her five years in office, Ms Kovesi had made considerable progress in her anti-corruption campaign, securing the convictions of several dozen ministers, former ministers and members of Romania’s two chambers of parliament.

From the EU’s perspective, the pressure on Ms Kovesi and the anti-corruption agency forms part of a broader government effort to protect high-ranking politicians by softening Romania’s criminal code and weakening penalties for corruption.

In this regard the central figure is Liviu Dragnea, leader of the Social Democrats, who holds no ministerial position but is the strongman behind the government. Mr Dragnea was found guilty in June of abuse of office, and has a previous conviction for electoral fraud, but denies both accusations.

A firm rival of Mr Iohannis, Mr Dragnea appears determined to avoid serving a prison sentence, because this would almost certainly spell the end of his political ambitions. Neither the EU, nor Mr Iohannis nor the government wants to see Romania’s six-month presidency start under a cloud. But the anti-corruption demonstrations that erupt from time to time in Romanian cities serve as a reminder to the government that there are limits to the general public’s patience.

In Romania the struggle for the rule of law is sometimes, quite literally, a battle.

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