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EU justice threat to Romania may prove self-defeating

European Union’s final threat forcing Romania to reform its justice system could be more damaging to its other 26 members
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This July the European Commission (EC) will issue a report on the state of Romania’s justice reform, which could recommend tough sanctions for the new EU member state.
But the method of punishment the EC can propose may prove more damaging to the other EU countries than to Romania.
The EC can recommend the enaction of a so-called ‘safeguard clause’, which means EU member states stop recognising and applying decisions made by the Romanian justice system.
This will have little effect on Romanian justice internally, but could damage any relationship EU countries and investors have with the latest member state.
European Commission officials have stated that the role of the clause is a “spur” designed to encourage reform, but it may undermine the process itself by creating further bureaucracy to a system already swamped in too much paperwork.
Introducing the safeguard clause would return Romania to its legal situation before 2007.
According to EU legislation, each individual member states’ court decisions are automatically recognised and put into practice everywhere in the Union.
If the safeguard clause is enacted, this will no longer be the case. “If a person wants a court’s decision to be applied in another member state than in the state it was given, he or she has to go to the second country’s court to ask for approval for the decision to be recognised and applied,” says Valeriu Stoica, lawyer and ex-Minister of Justice.
The other 26 member states will have to go through the same procedure if they want one of their court decisions to be applied in Romania. This would include delays in all areas of law, most worryingly in the extradition of criminals from Romania to other countries and vice-versa.
The result would be confusion in all the member states of the European Union.
“Such a decision to enact the clause could bring time losses and high costs for all the employees in the judicial system in any EU country in which one has to ask for approval to apply another court’s decision,” adds Stoica.
Member states have a back-up. There are still bilateral treaties between individual countries and Romania, which were not abolished with EU Accession.
This month European Commission officials will monitor whether Romania has fulfilled its promises in justice reform. To avoid the introduction of the safeguard clause, Romania must set up a functioning integrity agency to monitor the wealth declarations of public figures, such as members of parliament.
But the so-called National Agency for Integrity (ANI) is not operational. The highest court in the land, the Constitutional Court, has also declared ANI unconstitutional and the fledgling agency may face dissolution.
The EC also requires Romania to build on non-partisan investigations into high level corruption cases. But no major public figures accused of high level corruption currently face trial.
The introduction of the safeguard clause will be an unprecedented act in EU history.
From all the countries that have joined the European Union since 1973, only Romania and Bulgaria labour under this kind of scrutiny.
EU diplomats state they have no clue as to its effect. Asked by The Diplomat, an EC spokesman would give “no comment” on how effective he believed the safeguard clause could be.
“Not even the European Commission knows how this really works,” says Renate Weber, MEP from National Liberal Party (PNL) and a member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs within European Parliament
The fact that this is more of a headache for EU member states than Romania itself leads many, such as Weber, to believe that the EC will not recommend the introduction of the safeguard clause.
This may be an idle threat to Romanian justice reform.
The European Commission’s Justice and Home Affairs department is also in a state of upheaval. Its Commissioner, Franco Frattini, has left his post and returned to Italy.
As we went to press, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had yet to propose another person for this seat in the EC.

By Michael Bird and
Ana-Maria Nitoi

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