Monday, July 16, 2012

FT: Romania illustrates limits of EU power

By James Fontanella-Khan in Brussels

Romania’s prime minister is expected to sign up to a series of constitutional reforms on Monday that European leaders hope will reaffirm democracy in one of the EU’s newest member states.

But there is anxiety among some European lawmakers that the commitments made by prime minister Victor Ponta may end up being nothing more than empty promises.

The question of what to do with Romania – whose government has used emergency decrees to curtail the powers of the constitutional court, and voted to suspend the president – points to a broader dilemma for the EU: the relative powerlessness of European institutions when it comes to safeguarding the rule of law in member states.

Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute, an NGO in Brussels, says that the EU was deliberately designed to have limited powers to intervene in the internal judicial affairs of member states.

“The EU has always accepted that member states would join with very diverse constitutional arrangements and that’s fine as long as they obey their own rules,” said Ms Grabbe. “But when they stop doing that, as Romania seems to be doing now, it is very hard for the EU to react.”

A number of EU officials admit they have few powers to exert pressure on countries threatening the bloc’s core values. But following a series of clashes with member states over the respect of fundamental rights – including a stand-off between Brussels and Paris in 2010 over the treatment of Roma migrants – some officials and analysts argue that new tools should be deployed to protect Europe’s democracy.

Corina Stratulat of the European Policy Centre think-tank says the EU should apply “existing tools, but also create new mechanisms to deal with structural problems that undermine democratic practices in the EU”.

The EU’s most powerful weapon to punish a country that does not respect its democratic rule is Article 7 of the Lisbon treaty, which permits it to sanction a member state, including suspending its voting rights. But this measure, also known as the “nuclear” option, has never been used as it is considered too severe.

Monica Macovei, a Romanian member of the European parliament, says there is a reluctance to use such a measure, partly because MEPs fear it could be used against their own home country at some point in future. “Article 7 is too harsh, we need more intermediate ways of tackling the problem.”

The only time sanctions were used against a member state was in 2000 – before the Lisbon treaty was adopted – when the EU decided to isolate Austria after Jörg Haider, leader of the country’s far-right party, joined a government coalition.

The isolation policy, however, failed miserably, as the EU was later forced to drop the sanctions, while Mr Haider remained in power, highlighting the weakness of European institutions vis a vis national governments.

A similarly embarrassing incident took place in 2010, when Nicolas Sarkozy, then French president, deported 8,000 Roma migrants, despite the EU’s vocal opposition and threats of legal action.

A year ago, Hungary also stood up to the EU’s threats, ignoring Brussels’ demands to reverse a controversial media law that had been rammed through parliament by prime minister Viktor Orbán’s centre-right Fidesz party.

In Romania’s case, the EU still has a few cards to play given that Bucharest has yet to be granted the full benefits of being a member of the EU bloc.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, is monitoring Romania’s progress in fighting corruption, organised crime and modernising its judicial system. Such mechanisms of supervision could be extended if Romania does not comply with EU demands, a move that would stigmatise Bucharest.

Alternatively, the EC could indirectly sanction Mr Ponta’s government by blocking Romania’s membership of the much cherished border-free Schengen zone or suspend the release of much-needed funds to boost growth.

However, it remains unclear whether any of these measures will represent a real threat to a prime minister whose greatest interest still lies at home rather than in Brussels.

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