Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Romania Is Waiting for the Court’s Decision on the Referendum

Ralitsa Kovacheva, August 17, 2012

Romania's Constitutional Court is to decide on August 21 on the validity of the referendum, aimed at removing the president, Traian Basescu. Initially, the court was expected to announce its decision on 12 September after it set August 31 as a deadline for the government to check the voters lists. The reason was a statement by the ruling centre-left coalition, the Social Liberal Union, that the actual number of voters is less than the electoral roll and if it is updated, it will make the referendum valid. The situation cost the post of the interior minister, Ioan Rus, who explained his resignation with the "unacceptable" pressure to which he was subjected because of the referendum. Later on, another two key ministers were also replaced - of the foreign affairs and of justice. Ultimately, the court decided to announce its decision earlier, on 21 August and there are hopes that this could ease the political crisis. The Central Electoral Office has already announced the vote failed because it involved less than 50 percent of eligible voters.

The referendum of 29 July was the culmination of the war between Socialist Prime Minister Victor Ponta and centre-right President Traian Basescu. The government did not spare any efforts and means in its campaign against the president and it even trenched upon the independence of the Constitutional Court - a fact that was the reason Romania to be sharply criticised by the European Commission, including in the five-year report of 18 July under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM - monitoring in the area of judiciary and home affairs imposed on Romania and Bulgaria after they joined the EU in 2007). Romania was punished by an additional monitoring report which will be prepared by the end of the year and should reflect how has the government fulfilled the 11 specific recommendations of the Commission in terms of respecting the separation of powers and rule of law.

Although Prime Minister Victor Ponta vowed to meet the Commission`s recommendations, on 10 August EC President José Manuel Barroso was forced to send him an angry letter: "I am deeply concerned about recent developments relating to the Constitutional Court's validation of the referendum, despite the assurances you have personally given me in our contacts," Barroso wrote. He reminds the government that "it is now crucial that the Romanian government responds without undue delay to the requests of the Constitutional Court as regards the transmission of the relevant electoral lists."

Barroso also urges the Romanian authorities to investigate the threats against constitutional judges "so that any attempt to put pressure on the court is swiftly struck down". In a letter to EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding of 3 August, the president of the Romanian Constitutional Court, Augustin Zegrean, informed her about death threats made against judges. In her reply, dated August 7th, Vivian Reding wrote: "Let me recall that politicians must not try to intimidate judges ahead of decisions to be taken, nor attack judges when they take decisions they [politicians] do not like."

The situation is reflected in the concluding statement of the IMF mission to Romania, too, on 14 August: "The recent political turmoil is taking a toll on the economy and has dented confidence". Romania has been dependant on financial injections by the IMF and the EU since 2009 - in 2009 the country has received a loan worth nearly 20 billion euros and in 2011 Romania concluded a second stand-by agreement worth 5 billion euros. The conclusions of the August IMF mission generally repeat those of the May report while emphasising on the damage on the economy caused by the political turmoil: "A prolonged political crisis could hamper effective economic policy making, increase risk premiums and financing costs, further depreciate the exchange rate, and depress investment," the IMF warns. According to it, "a speedy normalisation of the political situation and acceleration of reforms" would boost economic activity.

The Romanian crisis is not an isolated case - as in respect of Romania, so in respect of Hungary and Bulgaria the EU has expressed doubts about their ability to respect the separation of powers and the rule of law. "Coming after Hungary’s premier Viktor Orban railroaded through a much-criticised new constitutional order since 2010, Romania’s blow-up highlights how some former eastern bloc members are still wrestling with communist-era demons. It shows adopting thousands of pages of EU law cannot transform political cultures overnight and that hard-won democratic progress can slide back," Neil Buckley wrote in a commentary published in The Financial Times. Moreover, "the Bucharest crisis has reignited debate, too, over the politicised decision to admit Romania and Bulgaria to the EU in 2007, although their reforms lagged behind eight other ex-communist countries that joined in 2004."

If the Constitutional Court recognises the referendum to be valid, this would mean along with parliamentary elections in November Romanians to vote for a new president. However, if Basescu were to keep his job, the likelihood of political antagonism in Romania to continue remains still real in the next two years until the mandate of the president is over.