Romania’s justice system under threat
Liviu Dragnea, head of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats, is facing allegations of embezzling 24 million euros from EU funds between 2001 and 2012. Despite the massive anti-corruption protests in February 2017, Romania continues to be run by the ruling elite, for the ruling elite.
Liviu Dragnea, head of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats (PSD) and speaker of the lower house of the parliament, is again defending himself against graft allegations. This time, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) is accusing him of embezzling 24 million euros from EU funds between 2001 and 2012. On November 21st, the Romanian anticorruption department upped the ante and froze 32.2 million US dollars of his assets.
By now, Dragnea has become a regular client of Romanian prosecutors. In April 2016 he was convicted of electoral fraud. He is also facing charges of abusing his office by allegedly arranging for PSD staff to be paid by the Child Protection Office without working there. These most recent allegations crank up the tension for Dragnea, and many commentators claim that the recent last minute, agenda-less visit from US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson – which seems unlikely to have been a mere social call – can only deepen Dragnea’s rut.
Certainly, Dragnea – and indeed Romania’s ruling class more generally – are right to feel that they are under the spotlight. They are, and they should be. For Bucharest finds itself at a crossroads: will it choose to follow European democratic norms, or decide to take the dark path charted by the likes of Hungary – or even worse – its Balkan peers such as Montenegro and Albania?
At the moment, the prospects seem grim. Romania is run by the ruling elite, for the ruling elite. In February, for example, the government tried passing a decree that would decriminalise some graft offences, a move that would have shielded many politicians, including Dragnea himself, from prosecution. For the population, many of whom can still remember the dark days of Nicolae Ceausescu, this stirred bad memories: “We went to bed in 2017 and woke up in 1989,” said Mirela Motatu, a 45-year-old dressmaker quoted by Reuters who had joined one of the protests. Unsurprisingly, this attack on the rule of law prompted widespread protests, the biggest since the Romanian Revolution of 1989.
Despite the massive February protests, Bucharest remains preoccupied with tinkering with the workings of the justice system in order to save the skin of high-level party members. Parliament is currently trying to push through controversial amendments to current judicial laws that will bend the judiciary according to the ruling power’s will, something the European Commission report describes as a “serious source of concern”.
To counter these allegations, the ruling party has turned to chapter one of the populist playbook: rekindling the Us versus Them narrative. The PSD adopted a resolution over the weekend invoking the existence of a “parallel and illegitimate state”, a structure allegedly trying to “take control” using public resources in a bid to decapitate the legally elected political leadership and prevent the parties currently in power from fulfilling their political programme.
“Fake news” – some of which may well have been dreamed up not in Romania, but in the Kremlin – is capturing the popular imagination. For example, there are stories that foreigners are controlling 70 per cent of the country’s farmland or that Romania is “a colony run by the EU”, in the words of PSD member and former Prime Minister Victor Ponta.
As a result, an illiberal current is beginning to emerge in the country. Many believe that Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) is corrupt itself, and uses the fight against corruption as a Trojan horse to settle old scores. Indeed, there are so many politicians up on corruption charges that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the population to muster much outrage on the issue. Radu Magdin, a political consultant in the country, described this as “corruption fatigue”.
It is against this backdrop – where the DNA is seen as something between a tiresome busybody at best and aggressive malcontent at worst – that some have taken it a step further and are claiming that prosecutors have anti-Semitic impulses. Alexander Adamescu, one of Romania’s richest tycoons, suggested in recent interviews that the corruption charges levied at him by prosecutors – he is accused of bribing judges to secure favourable outcomes in trials involving his company – are motivated by his Jewish descent.
But seeing how Adamescu is currently fighting an European arrest warrant (EAW) from London that would see him brought before justice in Bucharest, it is more likely that the tycoon is trying to soften judges’ hearts by invoking prejudices on grounds of race or religion – the only way to block extradition on a EAW. Discussing the case, Ian Bond, a director at the Center for European Reform, argued that Adamescu is more a “cause celebre” with right wing organisations in the UK than a victim of political persecution.
It is clear that the DNA is between a rock and a hard place in contemporary Romania, but what can be done to stop Bucharest from further eroding the rule of law and turning into another Hungary? Since the solution cannot come from within, it is clear that the EU should overcome its traditional meekness and step in. And to do this, Brussels could start talking a language cash-strapped countries like Romania understand: Money. Until now, the only way to sanction EU members straying too far from democratic norms has been to suspend voting rights in EU institutions; scarcely a deterrent to countries that are subverting democratic norms.
A better suggestion comes from Germany, which has tabled a proposal that links eligibility for EU funding to compliance with the rule of law. Rather than wasting more time with the inevitable EU navel gazing about how such steps can be taken, we can look to Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty (The Union is founded on the values of respect for human rights and freedoms) which Romania and its brethren Hungary and Poland can certainly be seen as breaching.
Those against these measures suggest that to take such steps would be tantamount to “not punishing the national government but the cities and regions, which might disagree with the national government,” and recommend a fewer-sticks, more-carrots approach to incentivise these governments to behave themselves.
But surely this ignores the fundamental issue for citizens living in corrupt states: as the rich and powerful channel money into their own coffers, as Dragnea allegedly has, it is the people who suffer. Indeed, it was the deadly end-game of corruption – some people getting rich, some others dying as a direct result – that lead to protests that brought down Ponta’s government in 2015. How much longer is the EU going to stand by and watch?
Maryla Król is a Geneva-based research assistant at an economic think tank. Her research focuses on US politics and the EU-US relationship.