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Romania's interim president fires back at EU critics

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(BUCHAREST) - Romania's interim president shot back at European Union officials Friday after they pressured the ex-communist state to safeguard its democratic institutions amid a deepening political crisis.

Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries, has been embroiled in political turmoil as the government of centre-left Prime Minister Victor Ponta has moved to impeach centre-right President Traian Basescu and curb the powers of the constitutional court.

The EU, the United States and other observers have voiced concerns that the country, which joined the EU in 2007, is undermining its democratic institutions amid the political battle.

Crin Antonescu, the interim president, warned in a speech on Friday: "The president of Romania, even the interim president, doesn't take orders... from anyone except parliament and the Romanian people."

His comments came the same day EU officials said they would maintain pressure on Romania to respect the rule of law, but the EU is learning it has relatively few tools at its disposal to sanction difficult members.

Romanian lawmakers last week voted to suspend Basescu in an impeachment drive to be decided in a July 29 national referendum.

The European Commission has voiced concern over Prime Minister Ponta's use of decrees to strip powers from the constitutional court as part of the campaign to impeach Basescu, his conservative rival.

During talks in Brussels on Thursday, commission president Jose Manuel Barroso gave Ponta a list of steps he must take to restore confidence in his government's commitment to EU standards of the rule of law.

Antonescu denied reports Barroso had given Ponta a "to-do list".

"The 10 or 11 commandments from Barroso don't exist, because we have no such document and because it would represent an unacceptable and unimaginable overreach of the European Commission's powers, which someone with as much experience and prestige as Mr Barroso would not have done," Antonescu said.

An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the union's executive arm will keep Bucharest under a monitoring regime for its progress on judicial reforms.

The commission next week will issue its regular report on the so-called Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, which also follows progress in Bulgaria's efforts to combat corruption and organised crime.

The report can be used as a form of "peer pressure", but Brussels has "not yet identified" measures taken by Bucharest that would warrant legal action, the official said.

The official added the EU has another tool in its arsenal: Article 7, which includes the threat of stripping a member-state's voting rights in EU decisions.

But the measure, the bloc's toughest weapon, has never been used and EU officials have few other sanctions available.

Barroso has asked Ponta to annul an emergency decree barring the country's highest court from ruling on parliament decisions and another changing referendum rules, the official said.

Officials also said Friday the president of one of Europe's top rights bodies will next week head up a fact-finding mission to Romania.

Jean-Claude Mignon, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, will be in Bucharest on July 18 and 19, the assembly said in a statement Friday.

PACE pushes for improved human and democratic rights across its 47 member states and in other nations.

Mignon is set to meet with Ponta, Basescu, the president of the constitutional court and other officials.


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