Romanian has made progress in judicial reform and the fight against corruption, but legal amendments that would weaken the scope of corruption as an offence, or which represent a major challenge to the independence or effectiveness of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), would entail a reassessment of the progress made, the European Commission said on January 25 in its latest Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report on Romania.
The warning refers to plans by the Romanian government to adopt two emergency ordinances envisaging pardons for some sentences and amendments to the Criminal Code leading to the decriminalisation of certain offences. The move has been harshly criticised by the DNA and the general prosecutor, while President Klaus Iohannis has started procedures to organise a referendum on the topic.
In its report, the Commission praised progress made in Romania, singling out the DNA and the High Court of Cassation and Justice (HCCJ) for establishing an impressive track record in solving high and medium level corruption cases.
“Maintaining the effort of the judicial institutions addressing high-level corruption remains the most important sign of consolidating the fight against corruption. The DNA has also been something of an example in terms of its reporting, which shows a high degree of openness and a willingness to analyse,” the Commission said.
As the fight against corruption intensified in Romania in recent years, the country has risen on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), drawing away from neighbouring Bulgaria and most other countries from Southeast Europe. The latest index, also released on January 25, showed Romania had continued to rise by one place in 2016, when it was ranked 57th out of 176 countries.
The commission has called for further progress, recommending that the current phase of the Civil and Criminal Code should be completed, with the parliament taking forward its plans to adopt the amendments presented by the government in 2016 after consultation with the judicial authorities.
The commission also recommended that the government and the parliament ensure full transparency and take proper account of consultations with the relevant authorities and stakeholders in decision-making and legislative activity on the Criminal Code and Code for Criminal Procedures, on corruption laws, on integrity laws, on the laws of justice, taking inspiration from the transparency in decision-making put in place by the government in 2016.
Romania should also adopt objective criteria for deciding on when to lift MPs’ immunity to help ensure that immunity is not used to avoid investigation and prosecution of corruption crimes. Romanian MPs have several times blocked the DNA’s attempts to start investigations into fellow MPs facing corruption allegations.
“The government could also consider modifying the law to limit immunity of ministers to time in office… The parliament should set up a system to report regularly on decisions taken by its chambers on requests for lifting immunities and could organise a public debate so that the Superior Council of Magistracy and civil society can respond,” the report said.
The commission invited Romania to take action to fulfill the 12 recommendations in the report, saying that it will assess progress made toward the end of the year. The CVM was set up on the accession of Romania to the EU in 2007 to address shortcomings in judicial reform and the fight against corruption.
In a January 25 statement, Iohannis highlighted that “the concerns raised by the two draft ordinances put up for debate by the government on December 18 could affect the legal framework for the anticorruption fight.
“The completion of the CVM also depends on avoiding negative developments which could question the progress Romania has made so far. The Romanian government and the current parliamentary majority have to understand that only by supporting continued efforts to strengthen reforms in the justice sector and fighting corruption they will contribute to the consolidation of the rule of law and CVM lifting,” he added.
"Today’s report shows that Romania still needs to make a lot of progress, but we know the country’s potential is huge and we are fortunate in having a new government with a real mandate in place to tackle these challenges. The New Year of 2017 presents a great business opportunity for the new Romanian administration to engage with the world, to re-open markets for foreign investment flows, to increase job creation and build economic security," the EU-Romania Business Society commented in an email to bne Intellinews.
However, politicians in Romania appear to be split over whether the country should remain within the CVM.
Senate speaker Calin Popescu Tariceanu said that he plans to propose that the government tell the European Commission Romania does not want to cooperate any longer within the CVM, because the country is being discriminated against, according to News.ro. He called the EC’s recommendations “nonsense”.
Tariceanu is a supporter of the planned amendments to criminal legislation. He is being investigated by the DNA for influence peddling and false testimony.
There had also been hopes in neighbouring Bulgaria that the CVM would come to an end before long, but the report on Bulgaria said that in the past 10 years, Bulgaria’s overall progress under the CVM “has not been as fast as hoped for, and a number of challenges remain to be addressed.”
However, the EC provided a list of key recommendations for Sofia, which if followed can lead to the conclusion of the CVM process.
"In the past ten years Bulgaria has made important progress in carrying out CVM reforms, in particular as concerns legislative and institutional developments in judicial matters,” commented European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans in a statement.
While the 2017 report showed that the country made additional significant progress in the implementation of the judicial reform strategy, the implementation of the national anti-corruption strategy still remains at an early stage, the commission said.
Despite the progress made in Bulgaria recently, as identified in the CVM, on Transparency International’s CPI, the country fell by six places compared to the 2015 index, to 75th.
Bulgaria was among several countries from the Southeast Europe region to backslide substantially on the CPI. Macedonia plummeted by 24 places to 90th, after the revelation of numerous corruption scandals involving top government officials in wiretapped conversations leaked by the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) in 2015. Moldova, which saw $1bn siphoned off from three banks in late 2014, dropped by 20 places to 123rd place. Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia also fell on the index, though by more modest amounts.