Romania parliament votes to impeach president
by Daniel Mason
The Romanian parliament has voted to suspend President Traian Basescu, who will now face a national referendum on his impeachment within a month. It came on the day the European Commission criticised recent political developments in the country, which it said could undo years of progress in strengthening the rule of law.
Basescu has been engaged in a bitter dispute with centre-left Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who claimed the president overreached his powers in pushing through extensive budget cuts in 2010 and exercised too much influence over state institutions. The prime minister's Social Liberal Union holds a majority in parliament and began its move to impeach the president on Wednesday.
Meanwhile Ponta's government itself has been accused of rising roughshod over the independence of the constitutional court. It has already backtracked on attempts to remove and replace judges after the court raised objections about political interference. Nevertheless the government passed a law this week making it easier to impeach the president, as well as replacing two speakers in parliament and the country's ombudsman with allies.
Earlier, the prime minister and president argued over which of them should represent Romania at the European Union leaders' summit in Brussels on June 28-29. Ponta won the support of parliament and travelled to Brussels in defiance of a court ruling in favour of Basescu. In addition Ponta, in power since May, has faced calls to resign amid allegations that he plagiarised parts of his doctoral thesis. He responded by dissolving the ethics committee that gave the ruling, saying it was made up of Basescu allies.
Basescu said the impeachment was an attempt to distract from the plagiarism row and that Ponta was "trying to take control of the state's institutions and especially the judiciary". He added that "actions taken by the ruling parties since they took over show that they intend to violate the institutions of state". The president previously survived an impeachment referendum in 2007. The new poll will be held on July 29.
Ponta will meet JosÚ Manuel Barroso, president of the EU executive, in Brussels next Thursday. In its statement, the commission said it was "concerned" about the developments, saying they "may be putting at risk progress made over the years" since Romania joined the EU in 2007. "The rule of law, the democratic checks and balances and the independence of the judiciary are cornerstones of European democracy and indispensable for mutual trust within the EU. Government policy and political action must respect these principles and values."
Later this month the commission is due to publish its latest reports on judicial reform and anti-corruption measures in Romania and Bulgaria – the EU's two poorest members – under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism applied to the two countries when they joined the EU. On Twitter, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said he was "very concerned" about the developments. The European People's Party in the European Parliament suggested stripping Romania of its voting rights in the council.
A report published today by the European Policy Centre says that what is at stake goes "far beyond the case of Romania and is crucial for the EU in general". It adds: "The developments in Romania show that democratic achievements are not irreversible and that the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law on which the EU is founded are not immune to assaults. The EU must be more critical early on of challenges to its building blocks."
Despite the political crisis, the Romanian government said it was committed to the pledges it made as part of a precautionary €5bn International Monetary Fund programme designed to boost investor confidence. The Romanian currency, the leu, fell to a record low against the euro following the publication of the commission's strongly worded statement. Ponta is Romania's third prime minister this year, with fresh elections due in November or December amid widespread discontent over austerity measures.