BUCHAREST -- The European Union has asked Romania's government for clarification after Bucharest effected measures that critics say will exert more political control over the judiciary.
European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said on February 20 that the commission, the EU's executive, was "following with great concern the latest developments concerning the rule of law in Romania."
Romania, which currently holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency, needs to "very urgently put the reform process back on track" and abstain "from steps which reverse progress" in fighting corruption, he told journalists in Brussels.
The Romanian government adopted emergency legislation on February 19 including a provision limiting the period of time that top prosecuting agencies can be run by acting managers. It also removes the prosecutor general's oversight of a unit tasked with investigating magistrates.
That eliminates the power of the prosecutor -- Augustin Lazar -- to dismiss an investigation by the unit into crimes allegedly committed by former chief anticorruption prosecutor Laura Koevesi.
President Klaus Iohannis, an opponent of the leftist government, said the government wants to render the justice system inefficient "for personal interests."
The government was "obsessed about weakening the justice system until it is longer effective," Iohannis wrote on his Facebook account late on February 19.
Romania should not be allowed to be run by people "who want to place justice under political control," he added.
Koevesi was dismissed by the government last year in what critics say was a move to prevent her anticorruption agency, the DNA, from convicting senior members of the governing alliance.
Koevesi, who has been widely praised by the EU for her results in fighting graft in one of the bloc's most corrupt countries, has emerged as a front-runner for the newly established position of EU anticorruption prosecutor.
The controversial unit tasked with investigating Romanian magistrates, which was established by the government in November in what observers say was a move to intimidate the judiciary, has opened a probe into alleged bribe-taking by Koevesi.
The emergency legislation now prevents Lazar from killing the investigation, which has been widely criticized as an attempt to smear Koevesi and prevent her from getting the EU job.
In a related development, Romanian media on February 20 published a document showing that the same investigative unit earlier this month opened a probe into accusations filed in January by a local online publication against Lazar, the European Commission's First Vice President Frans Timmermans, and other senior EU officials for "falsifying” a commission report on Romania's lack of progress on judicial reform.