The attempts by the Romanian government to weaken anti-corruption laws have been pushed back by mass protests.
A proposed decree would have lifted criminal sanctions from public officials including MPs who benefitted from abuse of office, if their gains were less than 200,000 Romanian leu (£38,000). The government said this was necessary to comply with anti-corruption court rulings. Opponents believe this will just legalise corruption up to that level. Romania is ranked as the fifth most corrupt country in the EU.
The Chief Prosecutor told the Financial Times that had the decree been passed, the fight against corruption would have become “irrelevant”. When Romania joined the EU in 2007 it was given specific conditions to deal with corruption; both the Romanian Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie (DNA), the anti-corruption agency responsible for indicting corrupt individuals, and the EU Commission believed there had been substantial progress made.
The Social Democratic Party (PSD) who govern Romania had something to gain from the decree. Their leader Liviu Dragnea, currently banned from holding a cabinet post but still allowed to be speaker of the lower house, is under investigation for corruption.
Protestors have been backed and joined on the streets by opposition politicians, most notably Klaus Iohannis, the President and formerly a member of the National Liberal Party (his membership is suspended whilst he is in the Presidency). demonstrations Since the government announced its plans, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets, with demonstrations in over 70 cities bringing almost half a million people out. These are the largest public gatherings since the fall of Ceausescu and the collapse of Stalinism.
Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission said, “The efforts in Romania, I must underline this, are phenomenal, really very good progress. So why would you in the final metres of a marathon turn back and go the other way again?”
The Social Democrat government was elected at the end of December 2016. It had promised a raft of changes; tax cuts, public salary and pension increases, and spending promises. The average wage in Romania is the equivalent of about £5,000 and many young people leave the country to find work across the EU.
The decision to amend corruption law does indeed seem to have taken place at a time when Romania was successfully convicting corrupt public officials. In the first eight months of 2016 court cases took place involving 777 indicted defendants, including ministers, MPs, and judges. DNA had indicted more officials from the PSD than any other party, and the party hierarchy has accused the DNA of political bias.