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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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coronavirus

Coronavirus: Commission signs contract to procure monoclonal anti-body treatment

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Yesterday (27 July), the Commission signed a joint procurement framework contract with the pharmaceutical company Glaxo Smith Kline for the supply of sotrovimab (VIR-7831), an investigational monoclonal antibody therapy, developed in collaboration with VIR biotechnology. It is part of the first portfolio of five promising therapeutics announced by the Commission in June 2021, and is currently under rolling review by the European Medicines Agency. 16 EU member states are participating in the procurement for the purchase of up to 220,000 treatments. Sotrovimab can be used for the treatment of coronavirus patients with mild symptoms who do not require supplemental oxygen, but who are at high risk for severe COVID-19. Ongoing studies suggest that early treatment can reduce the number of patients that progress to more severe forms and require hospitalisation or admission to the intensive care units.

Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “We committed in our COVID-19 Therapeutics Strategy to have at least three new therapeutics authorised by October. We are now delivering a second framework contract that brings monoclonal antibodies treatments to patients. Alongside vaccines, safe and effective therapeutics will play a pivotal role in Europe's return to a new normal.”

Monoclonal antibodies are proteins conceived in the laboratory that mimic the immune system's ability to fight the coronavirus. They attach to the spike protein and thus block the virus' attachment to the human cells. The European Commission concluded nearly 200 contracts for different medical countermeasures worth over €12 billion.

Under the current framework contract with Glaxo Smith Kline, member states can purchase sotrovimab (VIR-7831) if and when needed, once it has received either emergency use authorisation in the member state concerned or a (conditional) marketing authorisation at EU level from the European Medicines Agency. Further information can be found here.

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Environment

Water management: Commission consults to update lists of pollutants affecting surface and ground water

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The Commission has launched an online public consultation to seek views on the upcoming review of the lists of pollutants occurring in surface and ground waters, as well as on corresponding regulatory standards. This initiative is particularly important for implementing the recently adopted Zero Pollution Action Plan as part of the European Green Deal, and wider efforts to secure the more efficient and safer use of water.

Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said: “All Europeans should benefit from clean water. Ensuring good quality of surface and groundwater in Europe is paramount for human health and for the environment. Pollution caused by pesticides, manmade chemicals or from residues of pharmaceuticals must be avoided as much as possible. We want to hear your views on how this can best be achieved.”

A recent evaluation (‘fitness check') in December 2019, found EU water legislation to be broadly fit for purpose. However, improvement is needed on aspects such as investment, implementing rules, integrating water objectives into other policies, administrative simplification and digitalisation. This revision aims to address some of the shortcomings in relation to chemical pollution and the legal obligation to regularly review the lists of pollutants, as well as to help accelerate implementation. The public consultation is open for feedback until 1 November 2021. More information is in this news release.

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coronavirus

COVID-19 vaccines: Launch of the interactive map on vaccine production capacities in the EU

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The Commission has published an interactive map showcasing COVID-19 vaccine production capacities in the EU, along the entire supply chain. The mapping tool is based on data gained through the work of the Task Force for Industrial Scale-up of COVID-19 vaccine production, on data collected during the matchmaking event organised by the Commission in March, as well as publicly available information and information shared by member states. This data will be complemented and updated as further information becomes available.

Commissioner Breton, responsible for the Internal Market and head of the Task Force, said: “With more than one billion vaccine doses produced, our industry has helped the EU become the world's most vaccinated continent and the world's leading exporter of COVID-19 vaccines. This interactive map, featuring hundreds of EU-based manufacturers, suppliers and distributors, shows the breadth of the industrial ecosystem, as well as the potential for new industrial partnerships to further boost our health emergency preparedness.”

The Task Force categorized the companies based on their main area of activity, thus companies may have more capacities than those reflected in the map. The Task Force for Industrial Scale-up of COVID-19 vaccine production was set up by the Commission in February 2021 to ramp up production capacity for COVID-19 vaccines in the EU, acting as a one-stop-shop for manufacturers seeking support, and to identify and address bottlenecks in terms of production capacity and supply chain. The interactive map is available here.

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