Romanian prime minister pledges to address EU concerns

BRUSSELS Thu Jul 12, 2012 9:24pm EDT

Romania's President Traian Basescu takes notes before the Parliament vote on suspending him over what the ruling Social Liberal Union (USL) says is his attempt to pressure judges and break the constitution, in Bucharest July 6, 2012. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

Romania's President Traian Basescu takes notes before the Parliament vote on suspending him over what the ruling Social Liberal Union (USL) says is his attempt to pressure judges and break the constitution, in Bucharest July 6, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Radu Sigheti

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The Romanian government will quickly address European concerns over rule of law and will respect any Constitutional Court decisions regarding a referendum on the impeachment of President Traian Basescu, the prime minister said on Thursday.

Victor Ponta met European Union leaders in Brussels to defend his campaign to oust Basescu and to address charges that it failed to respect constitutional checks and balances.

Their rebuke of Romanian government policies on Thursday could endanger Romania's aid deal with the International Monetary Fund and scupper its ambitions to join Europe's borderless Schengen zone this year.

The EU response reflects long-term concerns in Brussels over Romania's efforts to reform its democratic institutions since the Balkan state joined the bloc in 2007.

In an interview with Reuters, Ponta, a leftist, said he had received a list of specific concerns related to respect for Constitutional Court decisions, his use of measures to bypass parliament when devising laws and criticism of judicial decisions, among others.

"All are reasonable points and concerns," Ponta said. "I will answer them very fast."

However, Ponta stopped short of guaranteeing that a crucial rule on voter turnout that could tip the balance in favor of the president would be enshrined in law as requested by the Constitutional Court ahead of the July 29 referendum.

Since coming to power in May, when a government close to Basescu collapsed, Ponta's government has introduced a number of measures to force the conservative president out.

REFERENDUM ROW

He has also come into conflict with the Constitutional Court over rules regarding referendums, ahead of the July vote to decide whether to validate a parliamentary suspension of Basescu and remove him from office permanently.

In particular, the court has said the referendum will be valid only if voter turnout exceeds 50 percent, a rule Ponta's government has objected to, but which has to be enshrined in law.

Some experts in Romania say the referendum could be followed by a period of legal ambiguity if Ponta's government fails to act quickly on the turnout issue, increasing concerns in financial markets over political turmoil.

A constitutional crisis could rise, they say, if Basescu lost the vote but turnout was below the threshold, because the court would have to make a ruling on a law that it had requested but did not exist.

Ponta said he had assured European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, whom he met on Thursday, that the Constitutional Court would rule on the validity of the referendum a day after it is held and that he would respect that decision.

"On July 30th the court will rule if the referendum had fulfilled conditions. I assured the president of the Commission that I will put this in practice and I will respect the decision of the court," he said.

However Ponta said he could not force parliament to make legal changes that the court had requested.

The Romanian leu hit an all-time low around 4.54 to the euro last week due to concerns about political tensions.

Addressing turmoil in financial markets, Ponta said the government would ensure that all macroeconomic assumptions included in the IMF deal, which comes under review later this month, are met.

He said the government would in "no way" miss any of the targets, including budget-deficit goals.

"We are going to respect all the deficit, all public debt and all macroeconomic targets," he said.

(Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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