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EU Chides Romanian Prime Minister Over Rule Of Law

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta faced strong pressure in Brussels on July 12.
European Union leaders have reprimanded Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta in unusually harsh terms for his government's drive to oust the president and curtail the powers of the judiciary.

Ponta was summoned to Brussels after the leftist-controlled parliament last week suspended center-right President Traian Basescu, replaced the ombudsman, and overruled the Constitutional Court by issuing emergency decrees.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso's office said on July 12 that he "expressed his serious concerns about recent political events in Romania" during his meeting with Ponta.

Basescu's suspension must be confirmed by a referendum, scheduled for July 29, and the Constitutional Court has warned Ponta that the law says a majority of registered voters must vote for the poll to be validated.

The government, however, has attempted to circumvent the constitution, issuing an emergency decree stating that a majority of those turning out to vote is enough to remove Basescu.

Barroso told Ponta in unequivocal terms to "restore the powers of the Constitutional Court and ensure that its decisions are observed."

The terse message was reiterated by EU President Herman Van Rompuy, who urged Ponta "to address the issues identified by the commission as problematic."

In what was seen as a strong rebuke, neither Barroso nor Van Rompuy joined Ponta -- who is also facing accusations of plagiarism -- at his news briefing.

Assault On Checks And Balances

Ponta's ex-communist Social Democrats joined forces with left-leaning Liberals in April to topple a Basescu-backed center-right government.

They accuse Basescu of exceeding his powers by supporting austerity measures agreed with the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a 5 billion-euro ($6.25 billion) aid deal to underpin Romania's recession-hit economy.

Ponta's multipronged attacks against the presidency, the judiciary, and the Constitutional Court have prompted critics to speak of a "blitzkrieg" against democratic checks and balances.

The United States and Germany have also criticized Ponta's moves, while Brussels on July 11 warned that Romania risked being prevented from joining Europe's borderless Schengen zone this year.

Ponta has in recent days backed off, promising to address EU officials' concerns in full, but he insisted the referendum was needed to prevent the country from grinding to a halt.

"When we decided to suspend the president we wanted to go to the popular vote to solve the deadlock of the co-habitation, because if the people will decide on the 29th to vote in favor of Mr Basescu, we will accept the vote and we will be forced to accept a legitimate president," Ponta said in Brussels on July 12.

Basescu Ready For Face-Off

Basescu, who in 2007 survived a similar referendum, also launched by his ex-communist rivals, has remained defiant.

He told public television on July 12 he was ready to face the voters in a referendum.

"Let's assume that this referendum would invalidate my mandate. Very well then. I've been president for eight years now, so I'll take my briefcase, leave, and go about my life," Basescu said, concluding, "I do not want to stay on by forfeit -- like in football, when you become champion by forfeit."

Basescu has warned repeatedly that the drive to impeach him is ultimately aimed at weakening the judiciary, whose anticorruption efforts have begun to bear fruit.

In a spectacular move last month, former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, Ponta's political mentor, was sentenced to two years in prison for embezzlement.
With additional reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP