In Depth

Romania protests: will the EU have to intervene?

As anti-corruption demonstrations leave hundreds injured, calls for the EU to reinstate the rule of law have been growing louder

European Union authorities are under pressure to intervene to uphold the rule of law in Romania, a week after anti-corruption protests left 450 activists injured.

 Last Friday, 100,000 “mostly peaceful” demonstrators took to the streets in different cities. Four hundred and fifty people were left “needing medical help” after riot police used what Romanian President Klaus Iohannis called “unacceptable’ force”, The Guardian reports.

“The people in Romania are looking for help from the European Union and I think we should give that,” Ska Keller, the German co-president of the European Parliament’s Green group, told the newspaper.

Romania has been gripped by civil unrest since January 2017 when the Social Democratic party, led by Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu, came to power and introduced a series of controversial bills to reform the country’s judicial system.

Grindeanu was ousted later the same year, but the Social Democratic Party has remained in power, with protests continuing against the party’s perceived corruption and attacks on the rule of law, Radio Free Europe reports.

So what is happening in Romania and what can the EU do about it?

Why are there protests?

Many Romanians are tired of the entrenched corruption in their country, which appears to be getting worse. In January 2017, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in cities across the country to protest against changes to anti-corruption legislation introduced by the new left-wing government led by Grindeanu. 

Under Grindeanu, abuse of office would no longer be a criminal offence if the sums involved were less than €200,000 (£176,000). Laws preventing politicians from taking a bribe on behalf of someone else would be abolished. Experts described it as a legalisation of corruption.

Grindeanu was forced out of office by a vote of no confidence by his government in June 2017, but the Social Democratic Party clings to power under the leadership of its new PM Viorica Dancila.

As a result, many Romanians remain “angry at what they say is entrenched corruption, low wages and attempts by the PSD to weaken the judiciary”, Reuters reports. The dismissal of Laura Codruta Kovesi, the head of the country’s anti-corruption unit, sparked further violent protests last month.

How has the government responded?

With a brutal crackdown on protesters. The Financial Times reports that rallies have been met with “extensive police violence”. Reuters says that on Friday alone riot police “fired tear gas into the crowd”. Hundreds were left in need of medical attention.

German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s spokesman, Christoph Jumpelt, has formally called on Romania to explain why “several journalists” were “deliberately attacked” by police.

President Klaus Iohannis, who is by decree not affiliated with any political party and whose role is largely ceremonial, said he “firmly condemned” the use of force against protesters, adding: “The interior ministry must explain urgently the way it handled tonight’s events.”

Writing in Politico, Romanian academics Marius Stan and Vladimir Tismaneanu say that: “The Romanian government’s response to a peaceful uprising is a traumatic reminder of the frailty of our democratic gains.”

What can the EU do?

It can impose sanctions. The Guardian reports that the leaders of the European Parliament’s Green group are “calling on the European Commission to launch its rule-of-law mechanism”.

Under the mechanism, the EU can place sanctions on any member state in which it deems the government of that country to be threatening the rule of law. The EU triggered the process for the first time last year when it took action against Poland for changes to the judiciary.

Although the European Commission has been investigating corruption in Romania since the country’s accession to the EU in 2007, it did not respond directly to requests to hold formal talks about the possibility of intervening in the country.

“Peaceful protests, as you know, ended in violence and violence can never be a solution in politics,” it said. “The commission is following the developments with concern and attaches great importance to the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption.”

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