The European Commission has threatened it will take legal action against Romania unless it reverses moves to cripple the independence of its courts and hinder the fight against corruption.
The commission, which is the European Union's executive body, has repeatedly warned that measures adopted by the ruling Social Democrats -- including moves to reduce statutes of limitation that would close some ongoing corruption trials -- are reversing years of anticorruption reforms and weakening the rule of law.
Spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a news briefing in Brussels on May 13 that Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans had sent a warning letter to Romania's government on May 10.
"The main concerns relate to developments interfering with judicial independence and the effective fight against corruption, including the protection of financial interests of the EU and particularly to the recently adopted amendments to the Criminal Code that create a de facto impunity for crimes," Schinas said.
"Possible legislation to allow extraordinary appeals would further aggravate the rule-of-law situation," he added.
The commission has already put Hungary and Poland under a special "rule of law" framework over steps to tighten state control over the courts, media, academic institutions, and advocacy groups. This could theoretically lead to the eventual activation of the EU's Article 7 -- the so-called "nuclear option" -- resulting in a suspension of their voting rights in the EU.
Schinas said similar action would be taken against Romania unless it addressed the EU's concerns.
Schinas also signaled that Romania's becoming a member of the EU's passport-free Schengen travel area -- for which Bucharest has been pushing for years -- might not happen if the government ignored the rule-of-law concerns.
A senior EU diplomat, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said penalties could include loss of EU funds.
"The Romanian coalition government is systematically undermining the rule of law for the sole purpose of saving corrupt political leaders from prison," the diplomat said.
"If Bucharest continues on this dangerous path, taking part in the Schengen travel-free area will remain a pipe dream.
"Infringement of the rule of law will endanger the distribution of more than 30 billion euros [$33.7 billion] in cohesion funds earmarked for Romania in the draft EU budget for the years following 2021," the diplomat told Reuters.