Jul 3rd 2008 | BRUSSELS AND BUCHAREST
From The Economist print edition
The European Union conceals Romania’s backsliding on corruptionHOW bad is corruption in Romania? Somebody well-placed to answer is Willem de Pauw, a Belgian prosecutor who is a veteran European Union adviser on the matter. Last November he wrote a report that concludes: “instead of progress in the fight against high-level corruption, Romania is regressing on all fronts…if the Romanian anti-corruption effort keeps evaporating at the present pace, in an estimated six months’ time Romania will be back where it was in 2003.”
This report has not been published (it is now available here). The European Commission’s report in February was a lot softer. “In its first year…Romania has continued to make efforts to remedy weaknesses that would otherwise prevent an effective application of EU laws, policies and programmes. However, in key areas such as the fight against high-level corruption, convincing results have not yet been demonstrated.”
That falls far short of admitting that Romania’s authorities are wilfully failing to co-operate. Some of Mr de Pauw’s most striking examples did not appear in the official report either, or were buried in footnotes. Mr de Pauw confirms his authorship but refers inquiries about it to the commission. Officials say he was consulted on the issue. Their February report, they add, was a “factual update”, not an assessment of Romania’s progress. That will come in a fuller report later this month.
It would be encouraging if this included some of Mr de Pauw’s points. One hot example is the cases that courts have sent back to prosecutors since Romania’s constitutional court struck down an anti-sleaze law. Mr de Pauw’s report said that “basically all” high-level corruption trials had been rebuffed by courts, which it was “statistically impossible to attribute [to] the coincidental occurrence of procedural mistakes in individual cases. Other factors than legal-procedural considerations have clearly played a major role.” He added that “the Romanian judiciary and/or legal system appears…unable to function properly when it comes to applying the rule of law against high-level corruption. Indeed, more than five years after the start of Romania’s anti-corruption drive, the public is still waiting for one single case of high-level corruption to reach a verdict.”
Events also support Mr de Pauw’s warning that Romania could soon regress to the level of 2003. Take the case of Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister charged with several counts of corruption and bribery. He has now been exonerated by the parliamentary committee on legal affairs. A lobby group, the Initiative for a Clean Justice, complains that “we are witnessing the transformation of parliamentarians into judges and of the judicial committee into an extraordinary court.” A full parliamentary vote on the committee’s recommendation has been postponed until after the EU’s July report. But Mr Nastase and his supporters are already considering a presidential bid in 2009.
In retrospect, the EU relied too much on individual politicians to back Romania’s anti-corruption drive, notably Monica Macovei, a much-admired justice minister. She was fired soon after Romania joined the EU in January 2007. Membership made the political elites feel they were off the hook. Mr de Pauw offers a bleak verdict. “Many of the measures that were presented, before accession, to be instrumental in the fight against corruption, have been deliberately blunted by parliament or the government immediately after accession…all major pending trials concerning high-level corruption, started just before accession and only after many years of hesitation, have now been aborted and are, most probably, definitely abandoned for all practical purposes.” He also cites the weakening of the role of the National Integrity Agency, meant to limit politicians’ conflicts of interests and verify their assets, and also amendments to the penal code before parliament that will “fatally affect” the investigation of corruption.
All this, he says, shows “the intense resistance of practically the whole political class of Romania against the anti-corruption effort”. Mid-level Eurocrats, as well as some foreign diplomats in Bucharest, agree. The problem is that countries such as France pushed to get Romania into the EU early for their own reasons, whether financial or geopolitical. And the political pressure may now be to cover up, not expose, the problem. If the EU’s July report on Romania is as anodyne as the previous one, suspicions will only grow.