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Romania, Hungary's two Victors cause fresh EU headache

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(BRUSSELS) - After Hungary's Viktor Orban, Romania's Victor Ponta is causing fresh pain to the EU, which is struggling to respond to signs of flawed democracy in ex-communist states, welcomed perhaps too quickly into the European fold.

With Romania in the throes of a political crisis, "it looks as if history is repeating itself" after last year's controversial rewrite of Hungary's constitution, said Corina Stratulat of the European Policy Centre think tank.

Though premier Ponta's impeachment drive against President Traian Basescu carries none of the worrying nationalist overtones of events in Hungary, "these political dynamics within and across the Union should set alarm bells ringing for the EU," she said.

Hungary joined the European Union as part of the bloc's 2004 "big bang" expansion from 15 members. Bulgaria and Romania brought the EU to the current 27 in 2007.

Two years later, in 2009, Poland and Sweden moved to further widen the Union, launching an Eastern Partnership destined to support reform in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, "with a view to accelerating their political association and economic integration" with the EU.

But the EU has frozen an ambitious political and economic deal with Ukraine due to the jailing of former Orange Revolution premier Yulia Tymoshenko and slapped sanctions on Belarus for rights abuses.

And though Croatia is poised to become the 28th EU state next year, Bulgaria too is now bogged down in a row over the transparent appointment of judges.

So EU moves to bond with nations on its eastern flank have cooled, a phenonenon known as "enlargement fatigue".

"Enlargement went too fast," Stratulat told AFP. "Now the EU has learnt lessons from the past, including from Greece. It is more attentive, it is refining its strategy."

The conditions set to join the EU in the past were insufficiently rigorous, said political scientist Richard Whitman of London's Chatham House. Joining now will be made more difficult.

"Croatia has had to jump through far more hoops than Romania or Bulgaria," he told AFP. "There will be consequences too now for Western Balkans states. Even if they embark on the path of accession, it will take a lot longer and be far tougher."

"A country will need to show it can be a mainstream member state, not a laggard," he said.

Brussels meanwhile is multiplying efforts to ensure members uphold basic values.

In Bulgaria and Romania, it has been monitoring judicial reform and the fight against corruption via a so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).

A report next week is expected to call for the CVM to continue in the light of current events. But this will mean a delay in efforts by the two nations to join the Schengen passport-free area, comprising 22 of the 27 EU states.

But there is very little else the EU can do to keep members in line with political values.

"There are no levers to pull," said Whitman. "The system was not built to sanction difficult members. The response is more often than not just to ride it out."

When Hungary's Orban moved to stem media freedoms and stack members of his rightwing Fidesz party in key institutions, the EU started infringement proceedings by the European Court of Justice. That led to some concessions from Budapest, notably regarding the central bank.

But the bloc's toughest weapon, the Lisbon Treaty's Article 7 suspending voting rights in case of "serious violation", has never been used.

Romania's young leftwing premier came running to Brussels this week in hopes of reassuring EU officials of his intention to remain on a democratic path.

Should Bucharest "fail to stick to promises made during the visit this is a weapon at our disposal," said an EU official who asked not to be named.

But "there's a dichotomy between what the EU preaches abroad and what it is able to enforce internally," remarked Steven Blockmans of the Centre for European Policy Studies.

Article 7 requires a unanimous vote, but "you can't always count on leaders of member states to act in an unfriendly way vis a vis colleagues," he said.

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Victor/ Viktor

Posted by Sarolta Davis at 14 July 2012, 11:04 CET
I would like you to add to your list another one Yanukovych (Ukraine). To me it looks, that you have to be very careful, when talking to a Victor.