conducted by Marie Shuqha
After winning the December 2016 elections and taking control of the government, the Romanian Social Democratic Party proposed a bill that modified the Penal Code and granted an amnesty and a pardon for a large number of offenses. The law was ostensibly presented as a way to relieve Romania’s overcrowded prisons, but the main beneficiaries would be political actors accused of taking bribes, graft or official misconduct. Even NGO’s interested in the welfare of convicts have expressed their opposition to this whole thing.
Vocal Europe: Was the emergency bill the catalyst for the current protests or is there more to the story?
Siegfried Mureşan: This is the main reason people are on the streets. About two weeks ago it became clear that the government intended to pass legislation that weakens the judiciary, that weakens the fight against corruption and the rule of law, and more precisely legislation which should lead to mass pardoning of criminals whom are currently in jail and the legislation which leads to decriminalization, abuse in office below an arbitrary threshold of 45000 euros which was chosen in an arbitrary manner by politicians. It was not through parliamentary debate that they intended in a transparent way by having a public debate and eventually involving the civil societies and the voices from the judiciary, that they intended to pass this bill but it was by emergency degree at 10 o’clock at night that they passed this bill. Their preparations were already completed.
Their non-transparency have made people skeptical and brought 100.000 people to the streets two weeks ago immediately after they passed that bill without properly informing about it, without officially having it on the agenda of the government and without having had any proper debate about it. It is a bill with major implications because it decriminalizes abuse in office. Immediately after the passing of the bill, people went on the streets and asked firstly for the withdrawal of it and secondly – of course after a politician does something like that to the people, with reputational damage for the country as well, it is also a matter of credibility for that politician and that’s why people rapidly said that the minister of justice cannot continue his term. The Prime minister, who was part of this – because the minister of justice hadn’t decided to pass this bill on his own – put the issue on the agenda and the government covered it. Because of this the people demanded the resignation of the minister of justice and the Prime minister and also of the president of the socialist party which is the ruling party in Romania.
The person who is president of parliament, who was the main driver behind this piece of legislation because he also would have benefited directly from it, being charged on two dossiers on exactly these offences so he would have been cleared automatically by the judiciary had this bill been enforced. They passed it but it was supposed to be enforced within ten days but people came on the streets. Up to 600 000 people were out on Sunday, February 5th which was the exact day on which they decided to withdraw their initial bill so for the time being, the bill is in its withdrawal process and of course people are disappointed by the action undertaken by this government.
VE: Were these changes really necessary or was the main point to release political actors?
SM: Absolutely! That was the trigger of the protests. As I said, weakening the rule of law is something that you don’t want the politicians to do to your country and the system of values of the people is correct. They came out to defend the rule of law and they are disappointed by the actions of the politicians and now of course, knowing that the politicians did this once, they are afraid that they will do it again. That they would attempt to pass that type of legislation in a way which they would benefit from and we are of course concerned and that’s the reason the people have questions on whether this government can continue. That’s why the protesters are also asking for the resignation for the Prime minister because he did something which clearly harmed the reputation of the country. I have to say that the minister of justice resigned today (February 9th). The question is if that will be enough for the protests to stop. It is clear that the minister of justice was part of this process but as I said, he did not do anything alone. You can’t pass legislation through the government without the permission of the head of the government which is the Prime minister.
VE: It has been said that the main reason for passing this bill were the overcrowded jails and prisons. Was it really for that reason or were they just making up an excuse to release politicians who were sentenced?
SM: The jails are too crowded, that’s correct but that’s not the reason they passed the bill. The reason they passed it was because some of the corrupt politicians were already sentenced and some still under investigation so they could benefit from it. Jails are indeed too crowded but what should you do when that happens? You should increase capacity and improve conditions in jails. You could build new jails or increase capacity in existing jails but you should not put criminals on the street. When public pressure increased, they decided to send the mass pardoning law through parliament, through the slower legislative process and adopt only the amnesty so the decriminalization of abusing office through an emergency degree because that was the part that was most essential to them. The mass pardoning with the argument that jails are too crowded, that was clearly only an argument to legitimize the emergency degree.
VE: The population is not very happy with these changes, seeing all the ongoing protests. How long do you think this will continue and what further impact will this have on the Romanian population?
SM: The government has announced its attempt to withdraw the initial degree. We have to make sure now that at the level of parliament, the degree is withdrawn and nothing will be enforced not even a single day because even if it is enforced for a single day, that will be enough to produce effects and to cancel all legal bases which legal prosecutors have for the time being to continue investigations. So we have to make sure that this legislation is properly canceled. What will happen now is that we had a vote of no confidence yesterday (February 9th°) in Parliament which failed. People are asking for the resignation for the Prime minister but the question is if there is an alternative majority in Parliament to form another government against the socialist party which tried to weaken the rule of law.
For the time being it looks like there is not. They won the elections two months ago so they received the right to govern but of course, they did not win elections by telling the people that they are going to proceed to mass pardoning and weakening the judiciary. They won elections based on increasing the minimum wage and pensions with using taxation. Partly it was populistic, because now we see that the deficit is increasing and that they won’t have the money to implement everything that they had promised to the people. In that sense, they lost credibility and legitimacy because they tried to do something which was first of all, not in de governing program and not what they were elected to do and secondly, it was clearly against the will of the people because if you have 600.00 people in the streets, it is obvious that you have done something wrong. It is clear that you have done something wrong as a government. So it is too early to say, we just now received the resignation of the minister of justice so we’ll have to observe and see if the efforts of the people are concerted and met because it is a prerequisite for the people. To obtain more concessions is that their demands are clearly articulated. To me, what is essential is that firstly, this legislation will be withdrawn without producing any effects and number two, that the government is committed to not passing any legislation which would weaken the fight against corruption and the rule of law. That’s of the essence to me.
VE: The government revoked their decision. Will the protests stop?
SM: It is hard to say because the people who are on the streets, although it was very cold and snowing, are determined. There is a big gap between the people and the politicians and especially the politicians who are currently leading the government and people don’t feel like the ruling politicians are representing them. There will be lots of skepticism toward the government in the upcoming weeks because as I said, they lost credibility, they did things which were firstly very bad and secondly not transparent and thirdly, not promised during the pre-election campaign. So there will be a bridge between the people and the politicians and my view is that it is not the people who need to compromise in the sense that they should give up their demands. The demands of the people are honest and correct and are the right ones. It is the politicians who need to commit to not weakening the rule of law. If they will not undertake further action to weaken the judiciary, then they might continue to govern. Of course, if they make any other attempt against the will of the people, half a million protesters will be on the streets again. Because a government who lost the trust of the people is a government at which the people are very carefully looking to at a daily basis.
VE: Up to 50,000 people continued to protest asking for the resignation of Grindeanu Cabinet, with around 25,000 protesting in front of the Government’s building in Bucharest, and some other 25,000 protesters around the country. Around 4,000 counter-protesters also met in front of Cotroceni Palace, asking for President Iohannis’ resignation. How is the President handling this situation?
SM: When the protests started, even before te bill had passed, when people were just afraid that it would pass, the president expressed his solidarity to the protesters. He’s been an advocate of the people for the passed two weeks. A few days ago, the governing party organized an alternative process in front of the presidential office. It involved about 100 people. A much smaller protest organized by the government took place against the president. The president showed good will and went out to offer the protesters thee and tried to talk to the people but of course they were upset with him and he couldn’t properly talk to them.
VE: Liviu Dragnea, head of the ruling Social Democrats, is one of those who would have benefited from the new law. He is banned by law from serving as prime minister because he was handed a two-year prison sentence in April 2016 for vote-rigging. How many more similar cases like Mr. Dragnea are there?
SM: There are politicians from almost all the political parties who would have benefitted from this legislation but clearly, the most politicians which are under investigation or who have been sentenced, are in the social party. He would have wanted to become Prime minister but he could not because Romanian law forbids people who were condemned for criminal offences to become a minister. He was condemned by the highest court of the country for participating in rigging a referendum in 2012. That’s why he himself could not become Prime minister. However, the minister of interior and the minister of foreign affairs would have benefited from this legislation as well as many other high ranked politicians from several parties but primarily the social party.
VE: Is corruption a serious problem in Romania?
SM: When we joined the European Union in 2007, it was clear that the judiciary still had to progress and that the fight against corruption had to pick up speed. After 10 years of efforts and with the support of our international partners, of the European Commission, of many states of the Union and our American and Canadian partner countries, the fight against corruption in Romania has made a remarkable progress. Meanwhile, prosecutors are investigating and charging high level politicians. As I said, the president has been charged, the former Prime minister is under investigation. Another former Prime minister was sentenced twice to jail over the course of five years. So the progress is remarkable. The institutions are really starting to fulfill their mission and do what they have to do. The judiciary is gaining strength. Corruption is an issue in a sense in which it is an issue in other countries of the European Union as well. It was widespread within politics. Those who need to be sentenced, are being sentenced. They are getting nervous and therefore trying to weaken the judiciary in their favor but it looks like they are failing and this is good.
VE: What does the near future hold for Romania?
SM: I had a tremendous amount of colleagues here this week from the European Parliament who have congratulated me for what the people of Romania have been doing for the past weeks. These wishes are well deserved for the people because all of us have seen the coverage of hundreds of thousands of people protesting for the rule of law, for the fight against corruption and this is impressive and great. This shows that the nation is ready to stand up for its values, to defend the law. And this leads to the conclusion that the future of the Romanian people can only be good but it’s clear that there are some politicians who are forming an obstacle to this. The more corruption there is, the poorer the people are. Less corruption means that the people are better off. Corruption means poverty. It is exactly this which we need to overcome so at the end of the day we have a government who rule for the people and not themselves.
VE: Do you think Europe and the United Nations are doing enough to resolve the dispute?
SM: I think the involvement of our international partners is essential. Because when Romania and Bulgaria as well joined the European Union in 2007, the judiciary in our country was not yet perfect. The Commission has put in place a so-called verification- and cooperation mechanism through which it monitors precisely the judiciary in these two countries. This mechanism gives the commission at every moment in time a precise image of where the judiciary of these countries is. I think it should continue. I think the involvement of our international partners was essential and positive and it should continue. It helped strengthen the judiciary in these countries. Could they do more? Well, we always need to adapt to the reality on the ground in the sense that we knew that corruption was a problem so we implemented the verification- and cooperation mechanism which is exactly what these two countries needed. If new challenges appear, then we might need to rethink new tools but for the time being I think that the Commission is active and it does indeed very well keep these countries on the right track when it comes to the rule of law.
VE: Do you have anything to add? How would you do to resolve this issue?
SM: I think it is important that people feel that we stand by their side. That they are not alone in the streets. It is important to show solidarity and that we talk about this internationally. That we raise awareness so that the international community is alert and is ready to help Romania if help is needed.
*Siegfried Mureșan was born in Hunedoara, Romania to a German mother and a Romanian father. In 2004, he graduated from the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest. He continued his studies with a Masters in Economics and Management Science at Humboldt University in Berlin. In 2006 he received a scholarship from the German Parliament and was part of the Bundestag’s International Internship Programme. Subsequently, he continued for three years as an Advisor to the Chairman of the Committee on European Affairs of the German Parliament, Gunther Krichbaum. In 2009, he moved to Brussels where he initially worked in the European Parliament. In 2011, he joined the Headquarters of the European People’s Party as Political Advisor for Economics and Social Policy. In January 2014, he was promoted to Senior Political Advisor. His responsibilities at the EPP included the coordination of EPP Ministerial Meetings ahead of ECOFIN, Competitiveness, Employment and General Affairs Councils. MEP since 2014.