The Guest Blog

Guest blog post by Nicolas Tenzer. Tenzer is chairman of the Paris-based Centre for Study and Research for Political Decision (CERAP).

Institutions of democratic transparency and judicial independence recast as a “deep state.” A ruling party determined to stand by criminally tainted figures. George Soros invoked as an insidious force fomenting political instability.

That description may fit events in Washington over the past year, but it also captures the past few weeks in Romanian politics. In Bucharest, the ruling Social Democrats are locked in a fight with Romania’s judiciary and civil society over hotly contested “reforms” that would fatally undermine anti-corruption laws and the agencies who enforce them.

With tensions escalating, PSD leader Liviu Dragnea and his allies are attacking those agencies in a way echoing Donald Trump’s tussle with the FBI. A parliamentary committee is looking to investigate “meta-state groups.” Justice minister Tudorel Toader has moved to sack chief prosecutor Laura Codruta Kovesi of the national anti-corruption directorate (DNA) on the grounds her actions “can endanger the institution,” releasing a 20-point report outlining what he calls “acts and facts intolerable to the rule of law” on Kovesi’s part. Even before Toader launched formal proceedings, the PSD made little secret of wanting Kovesi gone.

Why such animosity to Romania’s fight against graft? Simple – because many high-ranking PSD members are suspects. Dragnea himself has one conviction, is on trial for abuse of office, and is also under an OLAF investigation for syphoning money from EU-funded state projects.

To undermine those proceedings, the PSD has borrowed propaganda narratives from its Russian, Polish and Hungarian counterparts at the price of undermining Romania’s democracy. Party figures have even dismissed those protesting against their legislative measures as “paid stooges of the philanthropist George Soros.”

As Dan Barna of the opposition Save Romania Union put it: “It is not a matter of ideology, but a bunch of guys with problems with the law, so they want to change the law for themselves.” Kovesi has made the same observation: “If we look at who is attacking us we see people who were sentenced, who are on trial, people who have money, resources and who want to damage the credibility of the Romanian justice.”

Such campaigns are far from unprecedented in Eastern Europe. Ukrainian politicians deployed very similar tactics against their own anti-corruption bureau last year. Beyond the PSD, the DNA has also pursued many of the most powerful members of Romania’s political class and business community. Those figures have adopted their own, similar lines of attack.

They include businessman Alexander Adamescu, who is fighting extradition from the UK by casting corruption charges against him as political persecution – ironically, at the behest of the PSD. According to the Daily Mail, Adamescu has enlisted high-powered consultants like former MI6 chief Sir John Scarlett to help him. Daniel Dragomir, a former member of Romanian intelligence currently under investigation for allegedly hiring a Mossad-linked company to blackmail Kovesi, has also put forward a narrative of human rights violations and abuse of power and accused the EU of endorsing the judiciary’s return to the practices of the Communist-era Securitate.

This battle is destabilizing Romania, with the PSD sacking its own prime ministers and citizens taking to the streets to protest against the corrupted ruling elite. It also threatens Romania’s economic viability. Wide-scale corruption gives the country the dubious honor of hosting the EU’s second largest informal economy.

Romanian political and economic stability is of paramount importance to both the EU and NATO. Romania stands at the forefront of European defense and has successfully resisted Russian maneuvers to destabilize the country. Unlike neighboring Bulgaria, there is a solid cross-party consensus on Bucharest’s pro-Western stance.

As a NATO ally, the US has directly pushed the Romanian parliament to “reject proposals that weaken the rule of law and endanger the fight against corruption.” The EU’s concerns go well beyond geopolitics: the PSD’s moves against the judiciary threaten the acquis Romania and all other EU members are bound to abide by. By emulating the practices of ruling parties in Poland and Hungary, the PSD has made itself part of a broader challenge to the values and governance principles that unite Europe.

How should the EU respond? As Jean-Claude Juncker has stated, the most immediate carrot Brussels has to offer is access to the Schengen area. Joining Schengen has been a high priority for both Romania and neighboring Bulgaria, but neither can aspire to enter without true and lasting anti-corruption reform.

More concretely, the EU can also brandish Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), as it has done with Poland. There are also the 30.84 billion Euros in structural and investment funds it has allocated to Romania between 2014-2020, and the additional financing made available under the “Juncker Plan”. Even the threat of suspending those funds could have an outsized impact on the Romanian government.

European institutions need to closely monitor the proposed changes to Romania’s judiciary. If Bucharest violates its pre-ascension commitments, the Commission will need the backing of European heads of state and government. Emmanuel Macron, for one, has been very clear on those principles. All the same, Brussels must proceed in a way that does not deepen the gap between Eastern and Western Europe.

Liberal voices from these countries also need to speak loudly and clearly from across the political spectrum, especially in the European Parliament. The Parliament’s political groupings carry great sway to denounce bad practices among their members, as with the European People’s Party’s successful rebuke of Viktor Orban last year. The PSD’s Socialists & Democrats group has declined to take a similar stance on Romania thus far.

Inside Romania, the most immediate obstacle to the “reforms” is president Klaus Iohannis, who is a fierce critic of the ruling party and would need to sign off on dismissing Kovesi (he has backed her thus far). Dragnea and the PSD have a track record of trying to remove presidents who stand in their way. The EU should watch carefully for signs they plan to do so again.

Europe, though, can only do so much. Dragnea himself described the PSD’s electoral strategy as offering Romanian voters the choice between improving their income and watching politicians “handcuffed on TV.” To truly defeat the corruption counterrevolution, Romania must break the cycle that keeps bringing the party with such nakedly cynical views of governance to power.

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