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Parliament moves to crush powers of EU-backed anti-corruption agency

Romania’s parliament is launching a cynical and farcical attack on EU-backed measures to tackle high-level corruption

June 2010 - From the Print Edition

Its elected members are proposing modifications to a law which cripples the powers of the country’s National Integration Agency (ANI), a body verifying the wealth statements of public officials and sending suspicious cases to court.
ANI was established at the request of the EU and its existence helped Romania secure entry into the Union in 2007.
But new proposals reducing its influence have gained a near-unanimous reaction from the Parliament and were awaiting the nod from President Traian Basescu as we went to press.
The modifications state that political candidates no longer have to disclose their assets to the public. Only after they have been voted into office must officials make this information public. Thus people no longer have scrutiny over who they are electing.
The new law states that jewellery and art worth more than 5,000 Euro must remain confidential, because this information is “intimate”. Thus when politicians have cash, this is public information, but when this is converted into goods, it must be secret.
Politicians who write false information in their wealth statements will no longer be criminally charged for perjury. Public figures will suffer no punishment for not declaring the full extent of their assets. Politicians will be able to lie to their voters. If they are found out, they can declare their only sin was one of omission.
These amendments undermine the foundations of Romanian legislation against political corruption and mock the goodwill of the EU’s 25 members who welcomed Romania into the political bloc.
More damaging is the contempt these changes show towards the Romanian people, as Parliament seeks to keep voters in the dark about the business interests of elected representatives.
Internationally, Romania is regarded as one of the most politically corrupt countries in the EU and, with this new ruling, its leaders seem bent on retaining this status - and with some pride.
Parliament is also moving to protect itself from financial scrutiny at a time when the Government is asking the most vulnerable members of the public to make unprecedented financial sacrifices.
But does Parliament have a case against the agency?
ANI is not a perfect institution. One problem with Europe’s human rights laws has always been the contradiction between the right to privacy and the right of the population to information about public figures. ANI may have overstepped its mandate by asking for too many details.
Another problem is ANI’s legal argument that if a politician cannot state the source of his or her income, a court has the right to confiscate this unaccountable wealth. This ruling contradicts the Romanian Constitution, which states that all wealth must be presumed to have been lawfully acquired. Sadly one could argue that - in the last 20 years - there are painfully few examples of Romanians with large wealth that has been legally acquired.
Under pressure from the European Commission, Romania’s Parliament itself set up ANI before EU accession. But once Romania’s legislature felt the EU was no longer watching, they sought to sterilise the laws infected by these EU notions of transparency.
However the trend is that Romania changes its game-plan when its hand is forced by a larger player. This characteristic gives the EU a chance to get tough on Romania. When Romania was granted a 20 billion Euro package of loans from the EU, World Bank and IMF last year, the lenders should have attached anti-corruption conditions to the loan if Romania wanted the money. This would be similar to the IMF’s insistence that Romania takes a tougher line on tax evasion.
But there will be another chance. Romania will probably need to borrow more money in the next year and institutions with cash should condition all new loans on the insistence that Romania gets serious on transparency and accountability - or tell the country the alternative is bankruptcy.

Michael Bird

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