BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders reprimanded Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta on Thursday for failing to protect the rule of law and democratic institutions - criticism that threatens to block Bucharest’s full integration into Europe.
Ponta is in Brussels to defend his campaign to oust President Traian Basescu, which has drawn fire from Brussels, Washington and EU paymaster Germany for using measures they say are at odds with constitutional checks and balances.
Brussels’ disapproval could endanger a 5 billion euro (3.94 billion pounds) International Monetary Fund aid deal underpinning Romania’s recession-hit economy, and might also prevent Romania from joining Europe’s borderless travel zone this year.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso “expressed his serious concerns about recent political events in Romania”, his office said in a statement issued after he met Ponta.
“He underlined that the necessary checks and balances in a democratic system must be guaranteed,” it said.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who represents the heads of EU states, told Ponta at a separate meeting to address the EU executive’s concerns.
At issue are the measures Ponta’s government has taken in its drive to impeach Basescu, culminating in the president’s suspension in a parliamentary vote last week.
The leftist prime minister, whose government took power after a Basescu-allied cabinet collapsed in May, said he would address EU officials’ concerns in full, but remained defiant about ousting the president.
The clash is the latest in a long history of rifts between Basescu, a former ship’s captain, and leftist politicians in Romania, which have marred the country’s efforts to fight off economic problems and strengthen democratic institutions.
“I did my best to co-habit. He has acted against the government and against parliament,” Ponta told reporters in Brussels. “I understand that on a ship there is only one captain, but Romania is not a ship.”
The government hopes to make Basescu’s suspension permanent in a July 29 referendum, cutting his term short by two years.
Ponta has made sweeping changes to force out Basescu, a conservative long at odds with the prime minister’s leftist Socialists, the reformed heirs of the Communist party once run by oppressive Soviet-era dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu.
Ponta’s Social Liberal Union (USL) government has replaced the heads of both houses of parliament and an independent ombudsman with party loyalists.
Ponta has issued numerous emergency decrees, many of them in pursuit of his campaign against Basescu, bypassing parliament’s role in government. Only the ombudsman, now a loyalist, has the right to challenge such decrees.
EU leaders say his actions risk reversing progress the ex-communist country of 20 million has made toward deeper integration with the bloc it joined in 2007.
Like neighbouring Bulgaria, Romania has had an embarrassing regime of special EU monitoring of its institutions and its corruption-fighting record, one of the factors that has kept it out of the EU’s Schengen zone.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said Ponta’s efforts to remove Basescu threatened to undo progress made towards ending the monitoring. The European Commission is due to make a decision on the issue on July 18.
The head of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, who met Ponta on Wednesday, said his government’s policies looked legal, but were “very dubious from a political point of view”.
The rising political tension has pushed up Romania’s borrowing costs, and four-year bond yields jumped a quarter point to 6.41 percent at an auction on Thursday.
The International Monetary Fund said Romania’s standby deal remained in place and the Fund was focusing on economics rather than politics. It is expected to begin a review this month.
“We have a standby agreement. It’s still in operation. The government has not implied otherwise, so it stands,” IMF Deputy Managing Director Nemat Shafik told reporters in Vienna.
A series of rallies are scheduled throughout Romania in the coming weeks to bolster support for Basescu, who came to power in 2005 on an anti-corruption ticket but lost much of his popular backing as corruption festered.
Ponta’s camp says Basescu has abused the constitutional powers of a mostly ceremonial post to favour his allies.
Basescu’s backers say the USL is retaliating for the graft conviction earlier this year of former prime minister Adrian Nastase, Ponta’s erstwhile mentor, who tried to kill himself before starting a jail sentence last month.
Ponta himself is under pressure since being accused of plagiarising his doctoral thesis.
Basescu’s position was helped on Tuesday when the constitutional court upheld the parliamentary vote suspending him - but said a referendum to remove him permanently would be valid only if more than 50 percent of voters turned out.
The rule gives Basescu a good chance of survival despite personal popularity ratings of only about 10 percent. He survived a similar referendum, also launched by his Socialist rivals, in 2007, when the turnout was only 44 percent.
“I’m not going to vote. I don’t care,” said Maria Benciu, a 39-year-old saleswoman in Bucharest. “At any rate, I will never vote for Basescu again.”
Ponta has called an extraordinary meeting of parliament to change the referendum rules. But analysts warned that failure to enshrine a turnout threshold in law could spark a crisis if Basescu lost the vote on a turnout below 50 percent.
“On July 30, in this legislative fog, the (constitutional court) will have to decide if they validate the referendum or not,” said political commentator Mircea Marian. ($1 = 0.8208 euros)
Additional reporting by Ioana Patran and Radu Marinas in Bucharest and Ethan Bilby in Brussels; writing by Michael Winfrey and Justyna Pawlak; editing by Rex Merrifield and Tim Pearce