EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso on Thursday urged Romanian authorities to resolve the legal uncertainty surrounding an EU-backed agency scrutinising public officials' conflicts of interest, after the country's constitutional court stripped it of its main powers.
"I am concerned by the possible weakening of the National Integrity Agency (ANI) following the recent ruling of the Constitutional Court. The agency needs a firm legal basis to guarantee full independence and the ability to conduct proper investigations," Mr Barroso said during a joint press conference with Romanian President Traian Basescu.
The court last week ruled that most of the powers of the ANI were unconstitutional. Seven of the nine judges in that court were themselves under the scrutiny of the agency.
Setting up this agency was one of the four commitments Romania took in 2007 when it joined the EU with persistent problems in having a fully functional judiciary where corruption and other abuses of public officials are efficiently prosecuted.
ANI's main task was to check the assets and financial declarations of public officials and refer potential irregularities to prosecutors or disciplinary bodies, for instance in the case of doctors or teachers. It could also request the confiscation of unjustified assets.
Its activity was one of the constant positive points in the bi-annual reports issued by the commission on the state of Romania's judicial reform and fight against corruption.
The plaintiff who filed the constitutional complaint, Serban Bradisteanu, is a surgeon who also served as an MP and was one of the agency's most celebrated cases: on 15 September 2008, the ANI requested the seizure of €3.6 million and another 500,000 US dollars whose origin he could not justify. The money was acquired during his term in the Romanian legislature.
Asked if the court ruling does not also pose a problem for the European Commission, for backing an institution which is now deemed unconstitutional, Mr Barroso said the responsibility lied with the Romanian authorities.
"To be frank with you, the doubts regarding the respect for the law are not with the commission. Everybody understands that an agency for integrity in a country where serious problems of corruption have been identified by independent authorities of that country, is indeed a priority," he said.
"We don't consider this a problem for the commission, we consider this a problem in terms of the guarantees given to the European Union, to the commission and the member states. We hope Romania will fulfill its commitments," he stressed.
The Romanian president reassured Mr Barroso of his government's commitment to find a solution to resolve the uncertain legal situation regarding the agency.
"Romania will fulfill its commitments to have a functional integrity agency which reaches its objectives to control the assets of public officials and the origin of their financial resources," Mr Basescu pledged.
Yet plans to issue a governmental decree that would be legally binding and ensure the continuity of the ANI's work were unravelled at the very same time when the press conference was taking place.
In its reasoning published Thursday (21 April), the Constitutional Court said the government could not opt for this legal fast-track and should submit a draft law to the parliament instead.
Until the new law comes into force, all investigations are cancelled and the agency is reduced to a simple depository of asset declarations, without being able to scrutinise or publish them.