Prior to the EU summit in June 2012, the Romanian prime minister, Victor Ponta, disregarded a ruling by the Romanian Constitutional Court, which declared the president had the authority to choose who represented the nation at the summit. A few weeks after the summit, Ponta and his government suspended President Băsescu, which resulted in a 22-page report from the EU Commission that outlined many issues in Romania in regard to the judiciary and provided many recommendations in order to stay in alignment with the organization’s democratic standards. Ponta was forced to follow these recommendations and the referendum on Băsescu was lifted where he returned until the end of his term.
Romania broke away from communist control in 1989 and is therefore a fairly new Romania is a fairly new democracy, as it was established in 1989, breaking away from communist rule. A constitution was adopted in December 1991 which formed a double-executive government. The executives were made up of a president and a prime minister who were both given broad powers that balanced the power dynamics. The country did not join the European Union until 2007 and one of the stipulations for joining was that the government must be closely monitored, which was increased with the constitutional crisis in 2012. The constitutional crisis was a result of conflict between the two executives. President Băsescu was a part of the conservative party, while Prime Minister Ponta was a part of the European Democratic Party which created many conflicts. Ponta and his parliament placed 3 referendums on Băsescu, prior to his fourth one after the EU summit, in an attempt to remove him from his seat, but all were denied.
The constitutional crisis in 2012 stems from Ponta wanting to represent Romania at the EU summit, but Băsescu claimed he had the authority. The issue went to the Constitutional Court, where they declared that Băsescu had the power to choose who represent Romania at the EU summit. Ponta disregarded the rulings and flew to Brussels as the head representative of the Romanian government. The issues increased when Ponta and his parliament placed Băsescu under suspension from his position on July 6th and gave the Constitutional Courts 24 hours to give a judgment on whether or not he violated the constitution. The court ruled that Băsescu did not violate the constitution and the ruling was accepted by Ponta, the process, however, was incredibly rushed and prompted a response from the EU commission. The commission laid out a 22-page document responding to the recent events on July 18, 2012.
The document gives a very clear message about what it is requesting from Romania: “Romania needs to ensure respect for the rule of law, including independent judicial review. […] The trust from the EU will only be won back if […] all sides show full respect for judicial review at the constitutional level” (my brackets). Some of the recommendations include “implement all the decisions of the Constitutional Court”, “introduce reforms to publish court motivations swiftly after decisions are pronounced”, “create a monitoring group for judicial reform.” An article from The Guardian describes the language in the document as “unusually strong language,” and the author claims the EU document suggests the country may not be fit to be an EU member. The serious response from the EU can be linked to Romania’s neighbor, Hungary, which was (and still is) suffering from major democratic backsliding with the government led by Orban. According to a research paper covering this crisis, the author states the EU was acting in the aftermath of Hungary’s turn to authoritarianism, EU institutions and forces intervened swiftly and effectively.”
While the document criticizes Romania’s abuse of the judiciary, it does acknowledge the positive progress of the country, including the formation of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate, or DNA, which aims to prosecute corruption in high power abuse. According to the EU, the DNA has indicted hundreds of high-ranking officials, including a former Prime Minister. Unfortunately, DNA has struggled with very long delays in indictments, which connects back to the original issue of judicial reform and integrity in Romania. While the commission routinely applauds the continued effort of reforming the judiciary, they make sure to be very strict with their recommendations so as to give Romania the best chance of remaining in the European Union and of staying a democracy in general.
The constitutional crisis is one of the largest events since the establishment of a democracy in Romania that shows large signs of democratic backsliding and is one of the first major controversies that continue to occur until the present day. The massive polarization between the two executives led to Ponta losing his bid for president, and instead went to another conservative candidate, Klaud Iohannis, in 2014. In 2017, there were massive protests because of another abuse of power by the prime minister. The prime minister decriminalized the abuse of power by major officials in the government, and in 2020, the EU commission released another judicial review that once again reprimanded Romania over its judiciary reforms. Even though a majority of the original reforms were put in place after the constitutional crisis, Romania remains riddled with corruption and abuse of power.