The hearing, called ‘The Romanian Democracy - Political abuse and citizens' reactions’ was opened on 31 January with strong-worded statements by Verhofstadt and Hannes Swoboda, the newly-elected leader of the Socialists and Democrats group of the European Parliament.
The hearing took place after weeks of protests in Romania over an unpopular healthcare reform bill and focused on the state of democracy in Romania under the current government.
In Romania, the Social-Democrats and Liberals, together with the Conservatives, form a strong opposition to the current ruling party, the centre-right democrat-liberal party (see background).
“The fact that Verhofstadt showed up and supported them shows that this is something that deserves special attention, the European political groups need the support of the ruling party in Romania,” said a Romanian source in Parliament who preferred not to be named.
“I am worried that there is an increased tendency in Europe towards populism and radicalism, a re-nationalisation of Europe,” Verhofstadt said. “The message everywhere is the same: it cannot continue like that. I think there is a problem. Protests reflect that”.
The liberal leader gave a series of examples of international groups, such as Transparency International, which reveled that the corruption situation in Romania had consistently worsened during the years of rule of the Democrat Liberal party (PDL) of President Traian Basescu.
Hannes Swoboda, who leads the Social Democrats in the European Parliament, said the latest developments in Romania were “a dangerous deviation from the principle of democracy”.
He gave an explanation for what pushed Romanians to take to the streets in the past month: "Bypassing parliament and issuing government decrees instead of democratic laws cannot be tolerated. If people realise that the parliament is not heard, they will rightly go onto the streets.”
Romanian liberals are the most loyal MEPs to the Parliament's Liberal group and the country's social-democrats are the third most loyal to the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, according to statistics provided by Votewatch, a democracy watchdog.
This year, Bucharest will be a point of attraction for political groups in the European Parliament, with the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) holding its annual congress there. The European Socialists will also hold their biggest political event there at the end of September.
As a relatively large country, Romania has 33 MEPs in Parliament, compared to only 18 representing Bulgaria. “In Central and Eastern Europe, Romania and Poland are generally considered the most influential countries and at the moment, the European political families have a stake in Romania,” a Romanian source told EurActiv.
Location of public hearing boosts audience impact
Opinion polls show that Romanians trust EU institutions more than their domestic political system. “Romanians think the EU is more honest than the national politicians and usually good things came from the EU in Romania, such as the reform of the judiciary, brought about with the help of the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification,” the Romanian source said. “The EU is perceived as a guardian of good manners and directions in Romania”.
The public hearing was broadcast on Romanian television channel Antena3 which currently leads in terms of audience, has been most active in covering last month’s protests and which is broadly seen as supporting the opposition.
“For the ordinary Romanian, who does not know which are the responsibilities of the European Parliament exactly, the fact that democracy in their country was discussed in the EP will mean that the situation is getting serious – the social democrats and the liberals played on this, making the EP say it for them,” the source close to the political discussions said. He also added that the intention of the opposition parties in Romania was to affect the country’s image - for which he said president Traian Basescu holds responsibility.
Intention of hearing was 'not to complain'
“I did not come here with the opposition parties to complain or criticize Romania. I came with three targets: to inform you about facts that we consider a break of European standards of democracy,” said Victor Ponta, leader of the social democrat party in Romania.
Liberal leader Crin Antonescu likened Romania's current regime to a “dictatorship” similar to Syria, adding that the US ambassador to Romania said that “at least people are not being shot in the streets”. The liberal leader also accused Basescu of adopting a Mussolini-like rhetoric. “The Romanian government is more corrupt than ever,” Antonescu said.
Conservative leader Constantin Daniel criticised premier Emil Boc for Romania’s low capacity to absorb EU regional funding - currently the lowest in the EU, at only 3,5% - and said projects are approved very hard because they are offered in a preferential way that encourages favoritism.
Romanian MEP Traian Ungureanu, member of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group, criticised the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, saying he exceeded his powers by getting involved in Romanian national politics and went over the top by welcoming opposition leader Victor Ponta and Crin Antonescu in the Assembly on 31 January.
“In his capacity as President of the European Parliament he has no moral right to rule in matters of domestic policy and I wonder if it's a gesture worthy of an EP President, " Unugreanu said, cited by Mediafax.
Ungureanu called S&D leader Swoboda an “accomplice” for ”reinforcing the idea that Romania is a country under dictatorship”, the news agency writes.
MEPs who are members of the ruling liberal-democrat party in Romania are expected to send an official complaint to the EP for Martin Schulz’s “behavior”, which too “massively” supports the Romanian Social Democrat Party, Romanian news agency Mediafax writes.