Romania PM seeks to take heat out of EU dispute

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 18, 2012 6:00 AM
Romania PM seeks to take heat out of EU dispute

By Sam Cage

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta pledged on Wednesday to respect the powers of the Constitutional Court, bowing to EU pressure and taking some heat out of a dispute that has raised fears of political deadlock and financial disruption.

Ponta's dispute with President Traian Basescu, a rival whom he is trying to impeach, has brought sharp criticism from the European Union, forcing it to backtrack after previously having ignored or tried to work around Constitutional Court rulings.

Brussels has accused the government of undermining the rule of law and the dispute has raised doubts over Romania's International Monetary Fund-led deal and sent the leu currency to record lows.

The Constitutional Court has ruled there must be a minimum turnout of at least half for a July 29 referendum on impeaching Basescu to be valid.

Parliament is due to debate bringing the law into line with that ruling in a two-day session on Wednesday and Thursday. Ponta said he and the government - which controls the legislature - will vote to bring the law into line.

Interim President Crin Antonescu, a Ponta ally, has also expressed support for adjusting the law.

"Crin Antonescu and I are interested and ready to make any personal and political sacrifice for Romania to be considered a viable partner abroad - a serious partner and a country that respects all democratic rules," Ponta told a news conference.

Opinion polls show most Romanians want to impeach Basescu, who is unpopular because of his association with austerity and perceptions of cronyism and corruption among his political allies, but the turnout requirement gives him a good chance of surviving, particularly if his supporters do not vote.

Ponta said the referendum would be held over only one day - the government had previously suggested it could be extended to ensure a higher turnout - but voting hours could be longer.

Ponta, prime minister since May, has led a campaign against Basescu, who says the rush to oust him was triggered by government politicians' fears of corruption investigations after a string of high-profile convictions, including Adrian Nastase, a former prime minister and mentor to Ponta.

The European Commission will keep the pressure on Romania with a report, due later on Wednesday, on respect for the rule of law and efforts to fight corruption, a regular review under a program introduced to ensure the country and its neighbor Bulgaria met EU standards after they joined the bloc in 2007.

The Commission has already said it will maintain the monitoring which - along with exclusion from the EU's passport-free Schengen zone - Bucharest views as a stigma that maintains its status as a second class member.

The report will express concerns over the rule of law and say Romania needs to meet its commitments, underlining Brussels' concerns about the rule of law in the government's power battle with the president.

"We should consider ... monitoring of Romanian justice is to our benefit so that we can have external expertise on what has unfortunately many times transformed itself into an internal battle," Ponta said.

(Additional reporting by Ioana Patran)