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European Commission calls on Romania to halt judicial overhaul

STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union sought on Tuesday to increase pressure on Romania to freeze disputed judicial reforms and prevent any move away from democratic values as Bucharest prepares to take over the bloc’s rotating presidency.

FILE PHOTO: European Commission first Vice-President Frans Timmermans speaks during a debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

The EU’s deputy chief executive said proposed changes to the judicial system and criminal code made by the ruling Social Democrats were wrong-headed and signalled a reversal of a decade of democratic and market reforms.

The European Parliament also passed a non-binding resolution urging a greater fight against corruption, condemning police brutality during anti-graft protests and demanding an end to what it called the erosion of the rule of law.

“The developments over the last 12 months sadly have called into question and sometimes even reversed the progress made over the last 10 years,” Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans told a news conference in Strasbourg.

“We need to stand firm and support the Romanian population,” he said, setting out eight areas where Bucharest had to act quickly, including on press freedoms.

The Commission’s concerns stem from a series of legal and personnel changes made by the Social Democrats in the two years since they took power that are seen as threats to judicial independence that could intensify a creep away from democratic values in some of the EU’s eastern member states.

Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea, who has a suspended jail sentence and is on trial in a separate abuse of office case, has been pushing for further legislative changes, including a bill that would retroactively cancel wiretap evidence collected by the intelligence agency on behalf of prosecutors based on court warrants.

Transparency International ranks Romania as one of the EU’s most corrupt states and Brussels has been keeping its justice system under special monitoring since its 2007 entry.

“The Commission’s report and the European Parliament’s resolution address the same things,” centrist President Klaus Iohannis told reporters. “They tell us Romania has gone back in time to before its 2007 EU accession.”

“Dragnea is fighting against Romania, not for it.”

Brussels, which is already considering sanctions against Poland and Hungary for weakening the rule of law, is concerned Romania is following suit.

While Timmermans stressed that unlike in Hungary or Poland, the Commission was not seeking to penalise Bucharest, Romania’s turn as EU president for six months from January puts the country in the spotlight.

“Bucharest should use the opportunity of its presidency to lead on good governance and start by implementing reforms that strengthen the rule of law at home,” said Ska Keller, a German EU lawmaker who leads the Greens in the parliament.

Reporting by Richard Lough in Strasbourg and Luiza Ilie in Bucharest; Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg