Opening remarks

We last discussed the state of the rule of law in Romania in February, and today is a useful opportunity to take stock of the developments which have taken place in the months since. I'll try and be as concise as I can.

We are all aware that the initiatives taken by the Romanian authorities since 2017 as concerns the reform of the justice laws, the criminal procedure and criminal codes, and the processes regarding the judiciary, have led to concerns from a wide range of stakeholders both inside and outside Romania and the EU.

Many Romanians are worried that the proposed changes to these laws may undermine the long-standing efforts in the fight against corruption and the independence of the judiciary. These are concerns the Commission very much shares.

As guardian of the Treaties, when it comes to the application of EU law and the respect of the EU fundamental values, the Commission intervenes on the basis of accurate and thorough legal analysis, it focuses on concrete national measures, and it engages in a dialogue with the authorities. And in these matters, the Commission is politically colour blind and clinical in its approach. That is the case for Romania just as much as any other Member State.

So with your permission I will set out the main developments in Romania.

First, the Justice laws:

The three Justice laws, dating back to 2004, define the status of magistrates and organise the judicial system and the Superior Council of Magistracy.

At the end of last year, the laws were amended by the Romanian Parliament. These amendments have been challenged several times before the Constitutional Court.

These laws have attracted criticism – from institutions inside Romania, and from outside. The Council of Europe anti-corruption watchdog "GRECO" adopted a very critical report in March. The Venice Commission's preliminary opinion issued in July was equally critical, with serious concerns about the independence of the judiciary, its efficiency and its quality. It made a series of recommendations. The final opinion is expected to be adopted later this month. I know this House will pay as close attention to that opinion as we will at the Commission.

But unfortunately the fact is that the Romanian Parliament so far – so far - has not shown signs of responding to the opinions and recommendations

Secondly, as concerns the overhaul of the criminal codes and code of criminal procedures:

In May, the Romanian Parliament launched a procedure to amend the Criminal codes and the code of criminal procedures. They were passed in the months of June and July. The Romanian law enforcement authorities, as well as other Member States, expressed their concerns.

The amendments have been challenged before the Constitutional Court, and judgements are expected in mid-October. The Venice Commission is preparing another opinion on these amended codes, also expected to be adopted later in October.

These laws are crucial for the capacity of prosecutors to investigate and judges to sentence high-level corruption, as well for the ability of the judicial system to pursue crime effectively.

The climate needed for reform has deteriorated due to the secret protocols between the prosecution and the intelligence services. I call on the Romanian authorities to conduct full and impartial investigations of this issue. Romanians deserve a law enforcement order with all authorities properly supervised and full judicial independence.

The reforms to the judicial laws and the criminal codes are interlinked and it must be avoided that they have a negative impact on the independence of the judiciary and their effectiveness to combat corruption. That is why the Commission has discussed this issue regularly with the Romanian government at the highest level, and has made its concerns public.    

We have examined the texts passed by the Romanian Parliament. To fully assess their impact we are seeking further clarification on how specific elements of these laws should be interpreted.

Thirdly, as concerns the procedure to dismiss the Chief anti-corruption prosecutor and the evaluation of the General Prosecutor:

I would like to recall that the track record of the Anti-corruption prosecution – the DNA - was a central reason for the more positive assessment of Romania that the Commission made back in our Cooperation and Verification Mechanism report in January 2017. Moreover, robust and independent procedures for dismissal and appointment of top prosecutors have always been a key element in our recommendations. The Commission has also recommended that the Romanian authorities seek the help of the Venice Commission in this matter. This remains one of the outstanding recommendations under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism.

Honourable members, we are following the latest developments in Romania with concern.

The independence of Romania's judicial system and its capacity to fight corruption effectively are essential cornerstones of a strong Romania in the European Union. We have seen substantial progress in the past but things are now moving backwards in a way that would be damaging for the place that Romania has built as an EU Member State in recent years.

The Commission has repeatedly called on the Romanian authorities to rethink their course of action and to build a broad consensus on the way forward – and I want to reiterate that call today. I would stress once again that the Commission is always ready to cooperate with and support the Romanian authorities in this process. I trust this dialogue will continue, and we will be meticulous and precise in all the elements in the proposals that we would like to discuss with the Romanian authorities.

The latest developments are a source of growing concern for the Commission, If adopted without changes, the combined effect of the amended Justice laws and the Criminal codes would affect the capacity of the justice system, including the prosecution service, to effectively fight against corruption and other crimes.

This means backtracking from the situation that led the Commission to make a positive assessment in our report of January 2017.

We will report on the situation in our next CVM report next month. You can see what our CVM progress report stated in January 2017 and what it did in the last report in November 2017. The situation has deteriorated. Rest assured, all developments will be thoroughly assessed and reflected in our upcoming report.

President Juncker and I issued a Joint Statement already in January this year setting out our concerns on the direction of travel. We stated clearly at that point that the irreversibility of the progress achieved so far under the CVM is an essential precondition to phase out the Mechanism. Without that we cannot phase out the Mechanism.

So, while we will continue pursuing our objective of a sustainably positive situation in a dialogue with the Romanian authorities, I wish also to be clear today. The Commission will draw the appropriate conclusions if the amendments to the justice law, criminal codes and laws on conflict of interest and corruption are promulgated without taking account of the concerns. Concretely, this means following up our recommendations from the January 2017 CVM report, the recommendations expressed by the Venice Commission and by GRECO.

As the guardian of the Treaties we will not hesitate to take action where necessary to ensure compatibility with the Treaties. Indeed, the Commission will use all the means at its disposal, be it under the CVM, or otherwise.

The Commission urges Romania to put the reform process back on track immediately. This means going forwards, not backwards, and abstaining from any steps which reverse the progress accomplished over the past years.

I honestly think there is still an opportunity to turn things around. The laws are not yet promulgated and therefore it is not yet too late for the Romanian institutions to act to turn this situation around. As always we stand ready to help but the responsibility and the power to deliver change lies firmly with the Romanian institutions, and I call again on them to take the right steps now.

Thank you very much.

Closing remarks

Throughout my professional and political life over the last 30 years, I was a witness, a very close witness, of everything that happened in Romania. And I remember vividly that 30 years ago, working on the issue, I saw that the Romanian people inherited a thoroughly, thoroughly, corrupt system. It was not just corrupt because of the corruption. It was morally corrupt. The nation had been under the direction of a morally deeply corrupt dictator and his system.

If you take that into account thirty years ago and then see where Romania is today, huge progress has been made. Apart from the party-political composition of the government, but in those decades huge progress has been made.

And why am I so worried today? Because in the final stretch of this long and painful marathon, we risk now not finishing, going to the finishing line - so that the fight against corruption cannot be reversed, so that the rule of law is irreversible - and that we go in the other direction, which would undo some of the most important achievements by the Romanian people to rid themselves of this horrible, horrible past.

Someone who comes from a country like mine cannot even begin to imagine how difficult this must have been for the Romanian people. So if we now speak out, speak up, it is because we do it for the Romanian people who want to fulfil their European destiny. By being sure that the system they live in, the country they live in, is a democracy based on the rule of law with full respect of human rights, where corruption is combatted effectively and rooted out of society.

I want to remind members of this house, who have not made reference to the CVM report, that yes indeed the recommendations of the Venice commission are important, and we will work on them, but please also look at the recommendations made in the Commission's CVM report of last year, and the recommendations we will be making in the CVM report next month. I think they are a good roadmap to make sure that reform is irreversible.

I will continue the dialogue with the Romanian government. I could not, because of time, be very precise in every question and critique we have of the proposed laws or already promulgated laws. But I will be very meticulous and precise in putting my questions to the Romanian government and offer to them to answer these questions and to continue the dialogue so we can resolve these issues.

But let me be very clear. What is at stake is of huge importance for the future of our European Union. But what is at stake is of even greater importance for the future of the Romanian people.

So if the Commission needs to be brutal in our assessment, we will be. If we need to use other instruments at our disposal, we will use them. This is not a threat, this is just the Commission laying out where our role is, and that we are the guardian of the Treaty and we need to take this role very seriously indeed.

And, if I can make a political remark, sometimes I have the impression, to put it in the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, "it's déjà vu all over again". When you critique someone, when you have your criticism, two things always emerge: double standards, it's sort of a knee jerk reaction; and the second is, "it's not an attack on the government, it's an attack on the nation or on the people".

I hope I have made clear today, that we have made a clinical assessment of the situation, that we have analysed precisely the proposed changes in the legislation, that we do this on behalf of the Romanian people, not against the Romanian people, and that we look at each Member State in exactly the same way, looking at the facts, but also recognizing that every situation is different and we're not putting Member States in one batch. We're looking at every Member State on the basis of the specific issues in that Member State.

And I really want us to be successful here and I urge the Romanian government once again: keep the dialogue open and listen to our recommendations. They are put on paper in the spirit of cooperation and in the spirit of keeping Romania on the right European track