A recent decision by the Constitutional Court in Romania to "castrate" the prerogative powers of an agency to fight corruption - put in place on the EU's insistence - is "a smallcoup d'Etat," the press in Bucharest reports today (23 April).
On 15 April, Romania's Constitutional Court declared as unconstitutional the main prerogatives of the National Integrity Agency (ANI), triggering criticism from its leadership (EurActiv 19/04/10).
The Constitutional Court had been approached by a lawyer for Serban Bradisteanu, a former senator. The ANI had asked a Bucharest court to seize four million euros' worth of his property, upon accusations of corruption and embezzlement. Bradisteanu stands accused of taking a four-million euro bribe to help a pharmaceutical company receive a public procurement contract.
The court's decision will have an impact on the country's access to European funds as well as on Romania's plans to join the EU's passport-free travel zone, the Schengen area, ANI President Catalin Macovei warned.
When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007, shortcomings remained on judicial reform and the fight against corruption and – in Bulgaria’s case – the fight against organised crime. A Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) was set up to assist both Bulgaria and Romania, which issues reports every six months.
Both Bulgaria and Romania have stated their aim to become members of the borderless Schengen area in 2011. Such a decision, however, may be linked to the countries' performance under the CVM.
Yesterday (22 April), the Official Gazette in Bucharest published a Constitutional Court decision, adopted a week ago, which severely restricts the Romanian anti-corruption watchdog's ability to crack down on politicians.
The National Integrity Agency (ANI) is seen as Romania's main means of fulfilling the country's promise to the EU to come clean on corruption.
Some of the supreme judicial body's decisions appear to take a surprising turn. The income declarations and statements of financial interest of people holding public office will no longer be published as doing so would infringe their privacy, according to the Constitutional Court.
The only income declarations and statements of financial interest which will continue to be published online are those of parliamentarians, as the rules of both chambers of the Romanian parliament require that they be made publicly available. The Constitutional Court did not find the parliament's internal regulation unconstitutional, the press reports.
The Constitutional Court also declared verifications of politicians' personal wealth conducted by the National Integrity Agency as unconstitutional, as they "create the impression of parallel justice".
The ANI is no longer allowed to ask the courts to confiscate property should the owner prove unable to provide a satisfactory explanation of how it was amassed, as doing so would infringe on the presumption of innocence, the Constitutional Court stated.
Two thirds of constitutional judges investigated by ANI
The Adevarul daily called the Constitutional Court decision "a small coup d'Etat" and pointed out that seven out of nine constitutional judges were currently under investigation by the ANI.
For their part, the seven judges being investigated claimed they had never been informed about the ANI's proceedings against them. The Gandul daily wrote that the ANI had been "castrated" by the Constitutional Court.
Speaking in Brussels yesterday (22 April), where he met European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Romanian President Traian Basescu said his country was going to stick by its commitment to crack down on corruption.
Basescu: ANI was 'annihilated'
"Romania will stick to its obligations and will have a functional Integrity Agency, capable of reaching its objective of controlling the income of those in power and investigating the origin of their wealth," President Basescu said.
He said he would make sure that this happens despite the fact that "the ANI has been in practice annihilated by the Constitutional Court".
Commission President Barroso said Brussels was "worried" about the possible weakening of the ANI, which he said needed a stronger legal base to ensure its full independence and safeguard its investigative powers.
"We hope that Romania will honour its commitment. Romania gave us its commitment regarding that agency. [The agency] is not important for the Commission as such: it is important for the modernisaton of the Romanian system and Romanian society," Barroso said.
He said the agency, in a country where serious corruption problems had been identified or still exist, was a "priority".
Barroso also implied that he was speaking not only on behalf of the EU executive but of member states, who are worried about corruption in the Union's new members.
"We do not consider this as a problem for the Commission. We consider this as a problem for the guarantees which were given to the European Union," he said.