17 August 2018

Romania’s democracy is looking increasingly fragile. Last week, tens of thousands of people gathered on the streets of Bucharest to vent their anger at the Social Democrat (PSD)-led government. The protest was organised and attended by many from Romania’s large diaspora; thousands are estimated to have returned for the demonstration. The response from police was furious: water cannon, teargas and truncheons were used indiscriminately. Journalists and unfortunate tourists were caught up in the melee. This was the show of force that many feared would come, following 18-months of mass protests against a government many believe is moving in a sinister direction. Romania, it seems, is Europe’s new illiberal state.

The EU has hit back: on Monday, the Commission condemned Romania for its violence against journalists. And politicians who don’t always see eye-to-eye with Brussels agree with this stance. Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz demanded an explanation after a group of Austrian journalists were caught up in the protest: “We firmly condemn the violent clashes in Bucharest which left many demonstrators and journalists injured. We expect a full clarification of these acts,” Kurz said.

Will this pressure from outside Romania help? Hundreds were injured in the protests and the atmosphere on the streets of Bucharest – already at boiling point – is in danger of spilling over again. Protestors are unhappy at what they see as attempts by the government to weaken the rule of law and undermine the independence of the judiciary. In a country already plagued by corruption, it is understandable why many fear these measures will make matters worse.

Only last month, the popular head of the country’s independent Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), Laura Codruta Kovesi, was sacked on trumped-up charges of acting beyond her position. It was clear to many that this move was politically motivated. The DNA, which boasts a conviction rate above 90 per cent, and which successfully prosecuted thousands of government officials, lawmakers, business leaders and even a former PM, had, it would seem, made one too many enemies. Kovesi ultimately paid the price.

Yet for all the EU’s words, there is precious little action against the Romanian government. Beyond some wrist-slapping – such as the regular warnings to Romania not to backtrack on its fight against corruption – the EU appears powerless to change things. The EU, already facing fights on several fronts, doesn’t have the stomach for another battle. Romanians fed-up of their power-hungry government are the ones paying the price for the EU’s impotence.