The first day of January 2019 will mark the beginning of Romania’s Presidency of the European Union, which it will hold for the first time since the country joined the EU. Romania will take the helm at what is perhaps one of the most difficult periods in the EU’s history. The rise of populist parties, security threats from the east and the migration issue are just some of the challenges facing the EU in the first half of the year, which will also include the European elections in May and negotiations on the EU Long Term Budget (the Multi-annual Financial Framework) for 2021-2027. But the greatest challenge of all will be the UK’s exit from the EU, which is becoming more difficult terrain by the day.
Regarding Brexit, Romania’s Permanent Representative to the EU, Luminita Odobescu, has said that they are watching events in the UK “very closely”. The worst case scenario of ‘No Deal’ appears an ever increasing possibility and Ms Odobescu said that Romania is preparing itself for that outcome.
Whilst Romania takes on these unprecedented international responsibilities, concerns have been raised repeatedly about the country’s capacity to rise to these challenges. One of Romania’s self-proclaimed goals for their presidency is a “Europe of Common Values”, with an emphasis on “democracy, freedom, human rights and respect for human dignity”. This coincides with a time when the European Commission was forced, in its publication of its annual assessment of the Romanian justice system, to acknowledge secret protocols between the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) and various law enforcement, judicial and administrative agencies. Over 500 such protocols were identified by a committee of the Romanian parliament and today 337 of them remain in force. There are as yet unclassified protocols in existence between the intelligence services and the prison authorities,
In Romania, for reasons connected to the country’s painful past under the Ceaucescu regime, the intelligence services were forbidden from involvement in the nation’s criminal justice system, such as its courts. The protocols show that the intelligence services somehow managed to override these constraints, using protocols to co-opt other agencies to act on its behalf. The intelligence service may not arrest or prosecute people, but with the help of these unconstitutional protocols, they have succeeded in getting others to do their bidding.
A 2018 report written by Emily Barley, Lisi Biggs-Davison and Chris Alderton and published by Due Process and CRCE, showed Romania to be by far the worst violator of human rights within the EU. Romania had a total of 272 violations of human rights found by the European Court of Human Rights from 2014 to 2017. This means that Romania had over 100 more judgements against it than the next worst country in the EU. Only Russia and Turkey were worse offenders for violating the right to a fair trial among the 47 Council of Europe members.
Romania has also faced criticism for its poor prison conditions. The Due Process report highlighted the 104 violations found in Romania by the European Court of Human Rights for inhuman or degrading treatment, the vast majority of which occurred in detention. The European Court of Human Rights has consistently found that Romanian prisons are overcrowded, with space far below the legally required minimum per person. The report says: “In Romania, case after case has brought disgusting prison conditions to light; with infestations of bed bugs and vermin, inadequate washing facilities for prisoners, and cold, damp, dirty cells being the norm.”
Conditions in detention facilities were in the spotlight in 2018 over the death of former judge Stan Mustata. He had been serving an eight-and-a-half year sentence in Jilava prison after being convicted of taking bribes. His lawyer Lorette Luca has spoken of the inhumane treatment he received despite having serious kidney problems and having undergone dialysis. He was moved, whilst vomiting, in the middle of the night from one prison to another. He later died of a heart attack in Carol Davila civilian hospital in Bucharest. The hospital contacted prosecutors over his death as they were concerned about his prior treatment before his arrival with them. The Mustata case has caused investigations into three Romanian prisons: Rahova, Jilava and Giurgiu. Romania has seen other high profile prison deaths in recent years, including Dan Adamescu, whose death many believe was caused by his prison conditions. He was denied eight out of nine medical requests and when he received medical attention, it was too late.
As the European Union faces such urgent challenges, it is difficult to have faith in a Presidency led by a country who is not fulfilling at home the grand promises it makes for Europe. To have human rights as a cornerstone of one’s EU Presidency when back home the rule of law and human rights situation is bleak, will not inspire confidence in Romania’s EU partners.