By Luiza Ilie
SIBIU, Romania (Reuters) – The European Union needs stronger tools to protect the rule of law and fight corruption, the conservative German candidate to lead the bloc’s executive said on Thursday in Romania, where the government stands accused of undermining democracy.
The EU’s executive European Commission, which is already seeking sanctions against Hungary and Poland for backsliding on democratic standards, has repeatedly said judicial changes made by Romania’s ruling Social Democrats since taking power in 2017 reverse decades of democratic reforms and weaken the country’s ability to fight corruption.
Manfred Weber, the candidate of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) to take over at the helm of the new European Commission later this year, was speaking at a news conference in Romania, where EU leaders meet on Thursday.
“The future European Commission under my leadership will insist on the principle of the rule of law. I will present a binding rule of law mechanism for the whole European Union,” he said.
“People all around Europe want to live in a state and in a society where the fight against corruption is a priority, where the independence of the judiciary is clear and where the freedom of media is guaranteed,” he added.
Romania currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, but judicial changes its government have brought in have harmed its reputation. The EU wants to make access to its generous aid conditional on respecting basic democratic standards, but it has yet to agree on how to do it.
Romania’s centrist President Klaus Iohannis, a critic of the Social Democrat coalition, told the same event: “There are still political groups whose leaders want to be above the law, who do not like it when fundamental rule of law institutions investigate and bring to light corrupt acts and public funds theft.”
Iohannis wants Romanians to vote in a May 26 national referendum, to be held in the ex-communist country together with EU-wide European Parliament elections, against government plans that critics say would further weaken anti-corruption legislation.
The referendum and the EU election will gauge public support for the governing coalition’s judicial changes, which include amendments to the criminal code that could shut down a number of ongoing graft trials.
“I am not perfectly happy with everything happening in Romania,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told a room of young Europeans during a debate in Sibiu on Wednesday.
“That makes two of us,” Iohannis replied.
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie, Editing by Gabriela Baczynska)