Monday, September 3, 2012

EU worried over Hungary, Romania institutions: paper

(Reuters) - A top European Union official praised court rulings in Hungary and Romania which rejected widely criticized attempts to entrench their ruling parties in power, but said she remained worried about both countries' institutions.

Viviane Reding, the European Commission's vice president in charge of justice, told Le Monde newspaper that Hungary was one of the most worrying cases and cited the government's bid to lower the retirement age for judges - thrown out in July as unconstitutional.

Hungary's top court, ruling against the legislation, said it would be a threat to the independence of the judiciary, echoing criticism by the European Union.

The conservative ruling party Fidesz also used its two-thirds majority in parliament to pass a new constitution, which critics saw as cementing its grip on power by taking budget issues and other areas of law out of the top court's jurisdiction.

"That state remains one of those which worry me the most," Reding was quoted as saying in the interview, published on Saturday. "The courts there must be independent."

"All the problems haven't been resolved, but the worst has been avoided thanks, there as well, to a coalition of European institutions jointly voicing their worry," she said.

Turning to another ex-communist European state, Romania, which recently experienced a political crisis, Reding said the worst had been avoided there too.

In Romania, Prime Minister Victor Ponta's leftist alliance tried to dismiss his rival, right-wing President Traian Basescu, suspending him in July and holding a referendum on whether to impeach him.

The Constitutional Court ruled the referendum invalid because turnout fell short of the 50 percent required. Parliament accepted the decision on Monday and agreed to reinstate Basescu.

During the tussle, the government threatened to remove Constitutional Court judges or limit their powers, but backed down under EU pressure. Analysts said the battle was part of a broader struggle for power and control of the judicial system.

Both the European Commission and the United States criticized the methods used by the government against the president, saying they were a threat to democracy and the rule of law.

Reding said she would not be surprised if Romania remained excluded from the bloc's passport-free Schengen zone for now.

"It's up to the member states to decide, unanimously, whether to open their borders, based on a political analysis," she was quoted as saying, adding that admission to the zone required a strong judicial system and technically functioning border controls.

"I, myself, would not be surprised if the states decided not to integrate Romania right away," she added.

(Reporting By Christian Plumb, editing by Tim Pearce)

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