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European Commission refuses to face up to the truth about Romania

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Faced with the rise of authoritarian populism, the EU has struggled to fulfil its mandate as a guardian of democratic standards adopted in the 1990s as a precondition for enlargement to the east, writes David Clark.

Enforcement measures initiated against Hungary and Poland earlier this year come fully eight years after Viktor Orban began his authoritarian lurch. Meanwhile, governance problems are multiplying and the populist right continues to make advances. It is doubtful that Brussels has either the policy instruments or the political will needed to make a difference.

The problem was illustrated recently when the European Commission published its annual assessment of the Romanian justice system. For the first time the Commission was forced to acknowledge an unfolding scandal that has exposed what amounts to a parallel system of justice based on secret protocols between the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) and a large number of law enforcement, judicial and administrative agencies. A committee of the Romanian parliament has identified 565 of these protocols, 337 of which remain in force. Only a handful have been declassified.

These revelations touch on some of Romania’s most traumatic memories. The intelligence services were specifically excluded from involvement in the criminal justice system because of the abuses experienced under the Ceaușescu dictatorship when the SRI’s predecessor, the Securitate, used the courts as instruments of political repression. A law passed in 1992 stated; “the SRI cannot carry out criminal investigation actions”. The only exception is “national security offences”, where the SRI is empowered to act in a supporting role.

The protocols show that the SRI has been able to break free of these legal constraints. They detail the sharing of confidential information, the use of “joint operational teams” comprised of prosecutors and intelligence officers, and the conduct of investigations according to “joint plans”. These activities cover not only threats to national security, but also “other severe offences”.

Although the SRI is not allowed to arrest and prosecute, it has used the protocols to co-opt other agencies into exercising those powers on its behalf. Its covert relationship with the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) in particular has allowed it to target individuals for arrest, including, apparently, a Constitutional Court judge who voted to strike down a surveillance bill supported by the SRI on 2015. The former head of the agency responsible for tackling terrorism and organised crime says the DNA arrested her after she refused to let the SRI direct her investigations.

If there is no legal basis for these activities, it has also become clear that there has been no ministerial approval or parliamentary oversight either. Traian Băsescu, who was President or Romania in the period when many of the protocols were signed, says that he was kept in the dark about their existence. There is no known equivalent within the EU of an intelligence service operating beyond democratic control in this way.

The protocols represent a major threat to standards of governance because, as the National Union of Romania Judges has pointed out, “the rule of law is incompatible with the administration of justice based on secret acts.” Yet the Commission’s report attempts to sidestep the issue by claiming that EU has no jurisdiction over intelligence matters. This is a serious dereliction of its responsibilities. Issues concerning human rights and the rule of law are very clearly within the EU’s remit and have been since the Copenhagen criteria established the democratic obligations of membership in 1993.

The Commission knows this perfectly well because it has been rightly critical of Romanian politicians who seek to undermine judicial independence. It cannot at the same time ignore the threat to judicial independence and the separation of powers posed by the existence of secret and illegal agreements linking the SRI to the Superior Council of Magistracy, the Judicial Inspection and the High Court of Cassation and Justice. Figures published in the summer showed that nearly two-thirds of Romanian judges have been investigated by the DNA over the last four years. Hundreds of those files remain open, giving prosecutors (and through them, the SRI) an extraordinary power of influence over the courts. The Commission’s report simply ignores this troubling fact.

Brussels is reluctant to face up to the truth of what is happening because it wants an end to graft and it is easier to understand Romanian politics as a binary struggle between corrupt politicians and virtuous prosecutors. For years the Commission has lauded the anti-corruption work of the DNA as a sign of progress and a model for others to follow. It cannot process the thought that at least some of these efforts provided cover for a different, yet equally insidious form of corruption. It prefers the comforting illusion of progress over the messy reality of an anti-corruption fight gone bad, and in doing so betrays the values it is mean to uphold.

The Author, David Clark, was a Special Adviser at the UK Foreign Office and is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Statecraft. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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EU

Civil protection: Council adopts new rules to strengthen disaster response

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Council today (11 May) adopted a regulation to strengthen the EU civil protection mechanism. The new rules will allow the EU and the member states to better prepare for natural and man made disasters and to respond faster when they strike, including in cases which affect a majority of member states simultaneously, such as a pandemic. The text also sets out the funding of the civil protection mechanism in the context of the multiannual financial framework 2021-2027.

The proposed rules will allow the European Commission to address gaps in the area of transport and logistics, and, in cases of urgency, directly procure certain additional rescEU capacities. These rescEU capacities, as well as those hosted by member states, will be fully financed from the EU budget.

Prevention and preparedness will also be improved under the proposed regulation. The Commission, in co-operation with member states, will define and develop EU disaster resilience goals in the area of civil protection

The text sets out a total of  €1.263 billion in funds for the 2021-2027 period. It also includes an amount of up to €2.56bn to implement the civil protection related measures to address the impact of the COVID-19 crisis foreseen in the EU recovery instrument. This is an increase of over three times as compared to the 2014-2020 budget. It reflects the strengthening of the EU's collective response to disasters, including the recent establishment of a reserve of capacities (rescEU), the reinforcement of the European civil protection pool and the improvements in disaster prevention and preparedness.

Background

The EU civil protection mechanism was first established in 2001 and it coordinates the response to natural and man-made disasters at the EU level. Its objective is to foster cooperation among national civil protection authorities, increase public awareness and preparedness for disasters and enable quick, effective, coordinated assistance to affected populations.

The EU civil protection mechanism includes a European civil protection pool. This is a voluntary pool of capacities pre-committed by member states for immediate deployment inside or outside the EU. The civil protection mechanism was last amended in 2019, when an additional reserve of resources, called rescEU, was created to provide assistance in situations where overall existing capacities are insufficient.

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Africa

Vice President Schinas and Commissioner Johansson participate in ministerial conference on migration management with African partners

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Today (11 May), Promoting our European Way of Life Vice President Margaritis Schinas and Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, will take part virtually in a ministerial conference on migration management gathering Interior ministries from EU Member States, the African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs, the Chairs of the Rabat Process and the Khartoum Process and partner countries in Africa. Organised by the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU, the event will focus on two main areas in the EU's migration partnership with African partners: the management of irregular movements, including border management and return; and new opportunities for legal migration. Senior officials from the African Union, the European Commission and the European External Action Service, Justice and Home Affairs Agencies, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will also participate.

Portugal's Home Affairs Minister Eduardo Cabrita and Commissioner Johansson will hold a press conference after the meeting at +/- 14h30 CET.

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Economy

European Year of Rail: Connecting Europe Express will travel across 26 countries in 36 days

EU Reporter Correspondent

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On Europe Day (9 May), the Commission announced the route and timetable of the Connecting Europe Express, as part of the European Year of Rail 2021. Beginning its journey on 2 September in Lisbon and stopping in more than 70 cities in 26 countries, the train will link the Portuguese, Slovenian and French Presidencies of the Council of the EU, arriving in Paris on 7 October. The special train will demonstrate the power of rail to connect people and businesses, and the importance of EU infrastructure policy in making this possible.

Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean said: “Crisscrossing the continent, from Lisbon to Bucharest and from Berlin to Paris, the Connecting Europe Express will follow routes that bind us together – whether countries, businesses or people. While a symbol for connectivity, this train also serves as a reminder that we still have a long way to go and much work to do before rail becomes the transport option of choice for Europeans. Welcome the Connecting Europe Express as it stops at a station near you and join the events taking place around the continent.”

The project is a unique endeavour, involving the European Commission and the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), European rail operators, infrastructure managers and numerous other partners at EU and local level. At each of the stops, events and other activities, adapted to local COVID-19 measures, will shine a light on the key role that rail plays for our society, but also on the challenges that rail must still overcome to attract more passengers and freight. You can have a look at the main stops or at the full map of the route here, and watch Commissioner Vălean's video message. Find more details here.

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