By GORDON FAIRCLOUGH
Romania's top court on Monday cleared the way for a national referendum on whether to remove the country's president from office, despite criticism from European and U.S. officials fearful that democratic checks and balances are under threat.
On Friday, the Romanian parliament voted by a wide margin to impeach President Traian Basescu, saying he had overstepped his constitutional authority—the latest round in a bruising political battle between the right-leaning Mr. Basescu and the country's new leftist prime minister, Victor Ponta.
"These decisions definitely prove that all democratic and constitutional rules have been respected," Mr. Ponta said Monday night.
Critics of Mr. Ponta at home and abroad, however, have objected to a series of steps taken ahead of the vote—including firing the state's independent ombudsman and changing a law on referendums—that make it easier to oust the president.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert on Monday used unusually strong language to condemn the impeachment process, saying it is "unacceptable when a European Union country infringes the fundamental principles of rule of law."
Mr. Ponta, a 39-year-old Social Democrat, said the Romanian people, not German Chancellor Angela Merkel or other EU leaders, will decide whether Mr. Basescu should stay or go. He said Romanians would vote July 29 and "we hope for their voice to be respected."
Although the court said the parliamentary vote to suspend Mr. Basescu should stand, it didn't side completely with Mr. Ponta. It rejected a government effort to limit the court's jurisdiction over parliamentary decisions.
The court is expected to rule Tuesday on another matter, the rules governing the presidential recall vote. The judges must decide whether new legislation lowering the bar for removing the president to a simple majority of votes cast is legal. Before, a majority of registered voters was required—a higher hurdle instituted in 2010, after a previous bid to impeach Mr. Basescu.
Relations between the court and Mr. Ponta's government have been strained. Last week, the court issued a statement accusing Mr. Ponta and his party of trying to dismantle it, after politicians questioned the court's independence and called for the replacement of some judges.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said Friday it was worried that Mr. Ponta's actions "appear to reduce the effective powers of independent institutions like the Constitutional Court" and urged Romania to respect European "principles and values."
Washington, meanwhile, called on Bucharest to respect "the rule of law and democratic ideals."
EU worries about democratic backsliding in Romania, which joined the group in 2007, come after more than a year of struggles between Brussels and Hungary over issues ranging from judicial independence to media freedom.
Such skirmishes over political standards have been an unwelcome diversion for European leaders grappling with a financial crisis. And they have prompted complaints the EU doesn't have adequate tools to keep states from rolling back democratic gains.
Romania's political turmoil has slowed progress in dealing with the country's economic problems and raised doubts about its ability to meet the requirements of its bailout-loan agreement with the EU and International Monetary Fund.
That in turn has weakened Romania's currency and raised the borrowing costs for the EU's second-poorest member, after Bulgaria. Romania, which doesn't use the euro, was rescued by the EU and IMF in 2009, after the global financial crisis brought it to the brink of insolvency.
Mr. Basescu, elected to a second term as head of state in 2009, has seen his popularity plummet as Romania's economy has struggled to recover from a recession and public anger has mounted at tax increases, public-sector wage cuts and other austerity measures he backed.
Anti-government demonstrators who took to the streets of Bucharest and other cities early this year in at-times violent protests, often called for the ouster of Mr. Basescu. His political ally, Prime Minister Emil Boc, resigned instead.
In contrast to the center-right,Mr. Ponta's left-leaning alliance, which pledges more measures to stimulate growth and a stronger social safety net, has been doing better at the polls, winning a major victory in local elections last month.
Soon after, allegations emerged that Mr. Ponta had plagiarized large sections of his doctoral dissertation on the International Criminal Court. Mr. Ponta's allies blame Mr. Basescu for raising the issue to discredit a popular rival.
An academic panel, which defied a government order to disband, concluded that Mr. Ponta had committed plagiarism and should be stripped of his degree. Another commission in the Ministry of Education is still reviewing the matter. Mr. Ponta has said that he credited his sources in his bibliography, but not always in footnotes.