„The key of the visit by the Executive Vice-President of the European Commission lies in the following statement, made at the press conference: „What you have achieved with the judiciary over the last 20 years is extraordinary. It’s almost a miracle! ”
Why did Frans Timmermans use such big words? First, because they express an obvious reality, supported by figures and facts. No institution in the world has been able, in a very short time, to give such severe blows to a power system which, for decades, has not been held accountable in front of the law, either for corruption offenses, or even for crimes. It was not about a single institution in our case either, but a group of institutions that have been supported, after 2004, to act for the common good.
However, he did not shy away from big words, as the gravity of the moment also requires abandoning euphemisms. It would be a significant defeat for the European Union if Romania lost an asset gained at great efforts, after a fierce fight, to which the Commission also made a full contribution – extracting justice from the control of the corrupt political nucleus that has ruled it for decades.
And not only because the future of Romania would be placed under a big question mark, but also because the future of the European Union depends on how efficient the judicial systems in the countries of the former Soviet bloc are. When he said „Europe’s eyes are on Romania and this conflict”, Timmermans spoke, in fact, about the fact that the performance of our justice, as imperfect as it is, has become a point of reference in the region.
As unlikely as it may seem, judging by the initial data of the issue and considering what the justice system looked like in 2004, the only chance for the European Union to resist is to have all neighboring countries develop an anti-corruption spearhead as effective as DNA and an institutional set-up to support it, as did the numerous components of the national security system that have contributed to its success.
More precisely. Timmermans’ visit to Romania comes days after a journalist from Slovakia and his girlfriend were murdered. Jan Kuciak was investigating the connections of the Calabrian mafia, ‘Ndrangheta, with the political elite in Bratislava. Among the facts incriminated there was also the fraud involving European funds, committed by Italian citizens established in Slovakia.
Why would the Calabrian mafia or its accomplices in Bratislava kill a journalist? Why did they risk generating the monstrous scandal that is shaking up Slovakia today? There are only two explanations. Because they were afraid of his disclosures, but also because they knew they had a chance not to be caught. Both components of the plan involve a common denominator: a weak state, powerless when confronted with criminals.
This was the case in Italy, as well, until the start of the ”Mani pulite” („Clean hands”) operation. The mobsters killed journalists because they were the only ones who dared to expose their illegal business. When the state strengthened and decided to attack them, the killings targeted anti-mafia prosecutors and judges.
What does this say about Slovakia? Nothing more than the NAKA (National Anti-Corruption Unit) reports already say. Namely, the fight against corruption is a masquerade, as it was in Romania until 2005. While the country is being plundered and descends, year by year, in the rankings of corruption, prosecutors, judges, but also intelligence services just pretend to be working.
While DNA solved 3,900 corruption files last year, NAKA investigated 357. While DNA has sued nearly 1,000 defendants, NAKA has charged 141 people for corruption. The cumulative damage, established by the Slovak prosecutors, amounts to 30 million euros. In the DNA files, concluded with final sentences, the courts have already pronounced the seizure of over 200 million euros. By all criteria, the efficiency of the Slovak authorities in the field of anti-corruption is 10% as compared to that of the Romanians.
But is Slovakia less corrupt than Romania? No. In all the rankings of international bodies, the two countries appear in very close positions, separated by insignificant values. The radical difference is only in the performance of anti-corruption institutions.
While Slovakia, for a year, has only accused one MP, DNA has sent to trial three ministers, a senator, five deputies, two state secretaries and the President of the Chamber of Deputies, who is also the president of the main party.
How relevant are these differences to the European Commission? Hugely! In two directions. The first is that of European funds. If the EU finds that the Western taxpayers’ money reaches the Calabrian mafia, via Slovakia, the only possibility of intervention is in the hands of the Bratislava authorities.
If Slovak prosecutors do not make efforts and do not investigate illegal business, the European Commission has no appeal. They can ask for the money back and that’s about it. But this is only for the cases where OLAF completes an investigation and demonstrates a fraud case with European money. But how many cases can OLAF investigate per year? Given that there are tens of thousands of projects funded per year, in each country, it is clear that in endemic corruption countries, most frauds with European money will remain unsanctioned.
In Hungary, the problem is even worse than in Slovakia. Given the size of its economy, Hungary is the largest beneficiary of EU funds in the EU. Only four businessmen, close to Viktor Orban’s party, FIDESZ, have received European funding of 2 billion euros over the past six years. And the allegations of fraud continue to be expressed.
A firm which used to be controlled by the Hungarian Prime Minister’s son-in-law has to give back 40 million euros from a contract for the modernization of public lighting, after it was discovered that it used the money for overvalued purchases. While companies building a new subway line in Budapest have to return, for the same reasons, almost 300 million euros.
Just as in the case of Slovakia, the chances of the European Commission to punish the Hungarians guilty of fraud involving community funds and recover the money depend directly on the willingness of the authorities in Budapest to cooperate. For now, they only make promises that they will investigate. But they do nothing. The reports of the Hungarian anti-corruption prosecutors are as thin as those of their counterparts in Slovakia. Or those from the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia and even Poland.
No Central or Eastern European country can compete with Romania as regards cooperation with Brussels on this subject. And that is not at all because their corruption would be lower. On the contrary, the much larger amounts they have attracted from European funds make the damages for the EU, in absolute figures, much more painful than those registered in Romania.
What makes the difference between us and the others is that the detection of fraud involving European money has been on the DNA priority list for years, and this chapter in the anti-corruption prosecutors’ balance sheet is not matched by any country in the former communist bloc: in the last two years the number of trials in such cases has doubled. In 2017, 108 indictments and 22 guilty plaes were finalized, regarding 344 defendants.
And if we add that the list of defendants also includes the most powerful politician in Romania, Liviu Dragnea, we will understand exactly why Romania is seen by the European Commission at the opposite pole, as a positive example, compared to Robert Fico’s Slovakia or Viktor Orban’s Hungary.
While the PSD chief is charged with setting up an organized criminal group, and his criminal links with the „Teldrum” network have been publicly exposed by DNA and OLAF, no one in Slovakia or Hungary has the slightest hope that prosecutors would dare to do something similar to Fico or Orban. And not because they do not have reasons. The few independent publications in the two countries abound with disclosures about the illegal affairs of the two Premiers. Recently, Radio Deutsche Welle estimated Viktor Orban’s assets at 1 billion euros.
But let us return to the importance of justice in Romania for the European Union and why it would be a catastrophe for Brussels to return to the Iliescu-Năstase-Stănoiu-Amărie period. The reintroduction of DNA and other institutions that support it under political control would mean that the EU loses the only example of success that offers hope that, in the foreseeable future, the former communist countries will align with the integrity standards of the West. Standards that assume that fraud on public money and especially European funds is the exception and not the rule.
How badly this issue affects the „old Europe” can be seen in the advanced preparations to condition the granting of all European funds, not only those of cohesion and for agriculture, on respecting the rule of law and the good governance.
The sensitive element, however, is that no matter how much pressure and threats the Commission mobilizes against the plundering elites, they will not be successful and will not be able to stop massive fraud if they do not find allies in those countries that at some point tilt the balance by starting criminal investigations and by removing the most corrupt people from the levers of power. Allies such as the partner institutions in Romania that enabled the „miracle” of which Frans Timmermans spoke.
In addition, the solution to block European funds can only be temporary and with a limited area of action. Considering the landscape of power in Central and Eastern Europe today, as soon as granting Community funds would start to be correlated with an independent and incisive justice, no former communist country, besides Romania, would meet the requirements to receive one euro. Which obviously won’t happen. Because at that time there would be no European Union.
Most likely, there will be some countries that will be punished for setting an example. But not even with them will the European Commission afford to go too far because it would generate hostile reactions among citizens, would provide arguments for anti-European politicians and could create an anti-EU coalition on the eastern border.
Therefore, in practice, the EU is doomed to succeed in imposing the only solution that can work in the long term. To invigorate the judicial systems of all countries in the vicinity of Romania, so that their anti-corruption performances should be close to ours. And if this is the only real solution that can reduce the size of fraud, but also lead, in time, to the healing of political and administrative elites, how could the European officials give up the only example of success that they have it in this part of the continent, without a fierce fight?
The second plan, which imposes even more urgency on European actions, is the political one. The fraud involving European funds enriches not only the mafia, but also increasingly violent anti-European politicians who are closer and closer to Russia. As it turns out, the EU is lining the pockets of politicians who have come to act openly against the European project. Again, Fico and Orban are perfect examples. Both are Putin’s trusted friends, both are declared enemies of the founding principles of the community space.
What does this plan have to do with the EU’s need to support justice in Romania? It actually has a lot to do. Fico, Orban and alike have maintained power for years and years because they are allowed to lie that they are honest and that whatever they do, they do it for the welfare of the people. Both Dragnea and Tariceanu would enjoy the same trust and popularity if in Romania, as in Slovakia and Hungary, there were no institutions able to put a mirror in front of them and show people (those who want to see) who they really are, with documents, figures and facts.
The support that the European Union gives to Romania so as not to waste the „miracle” of justice is because it can survive only with such miracles, replicated throughout the continent,. Only with such miracles can it prevent the transformation of the European project into a cooperative to enrich local or cross-border mafia networks. Only with such miracles can it stop Europe from nourishing, enriching and strengthening the enemies of Europe.”
This editorial was first published on www.digi24.ro, in March 2018, under the title ”How did the Romanian justice become top priority for Europe”
Dan Cristian Turturică is the Editor-in-chief of Universul.net. He has been working as a journalist for 30 years. During the last 19 years, he was the editor-in-chief of ”Evenimentul zilei” and ”Romania libera” daily newspapers, and of Digi24.ro news website.