MPs and EU Commissioners intent on preventing Brexit should look to the disastrous Romanian Presidency of the EU Council, the country's accompanying domestic emergency, and the EU's utter failure to get to grips with it for the truly sobering reality of the state of the European project, says Damien Phillips.

The accession of the Emperor Commodus in 180AD is often cited as the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire, with the Roman statesman Cassius Dio describing its descent from "a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron". Senior Conservatives will now be wondering if Theresa May's disastrous premiership represents their very own 'Commodus moment', the start of an inexorable decay for what was once regarded as the most successful political party in the western world. But Britain isn't alone in suffering a crisis of leadership – those desperately attempting to keep the EU in one piece must ask if this year's Romanian Presidency is symbolic of similarly terminal decline.

The disastrous Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, its accompanying domestic emergency, and the EU's total failure to get to grips with it reveals much about the state of the union. The rotating presidency is nominally the flagship nation of the EU, it is the voice of EU member governments and sets the long-term goals for the bloc. This is the first time Romania has held the position since it joined the EU. But, with all eyes on the elections to the European Parliament and an impending Conservative leadership battle, there has been surprisingly little mention of the fact that the EU's supposed leading state is undergoing its biggest crisis since it was taken over by the Soviet Union in 1945.

Far from concentrating on urgently needed EU reform, Romania's elected government, and a few honourable judges, are in a pitched battle with the country's own intelligence services and corrupt elements within its state agencies. The SRI, Romania's domestic intelligence service, has established a powerful and illegal network of influence that reaches into every single branch of the government. Crucially, it has infiltrated Romania's judiciary, with judges facing blackmail, intimidation and bribery to deliver the "correct" verdicts in major cases. It is effectively operating a permanent 'shadow state' in the country.

A former Secretary of State in the Romanian Ministry of Justice, Ovidiu Putura, testifying before a British Court last month, revealed that the SRI had compiled lists of key individuals to target, systematically going after anyone who might oppose its wielding of unchecked power or those with wealth that could be stolen through forfeiture. The SRI exploited vulnerabilities in judicial IT systems to ensure that their agents amongst Romania's judges would be assigned in cases where they needed to ensure the defendant was found guilty, consigning them to years of incarceration in Romania's "medieval" prison system where they could pose no further problem to the parallel regime.

The problem worsened with the appointment of Laura Codruta Kovesi as Chief Prosecutor of the country's National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). A close ally of the disgraced Florian Coldea, the then Deputy Chief of the SRI, with Kovesi at the helm mixed teams of anti-corruption prosecutors and intelligence officers waged a campaign of 'lawfare' using false corruption charges to imprison key businesspeople, expats in crucial industries, media owners, journalists, judges, politicians, civil servants and even the heads of rival government agencies who spoke out against what it was doing.

Presenting herself as a latter-day Joan of Arc in numerous briefings to the international press, Kovesi proved a skilful manipulator of global opinion, regularly featuring in fawning puff-pieces in the world's media and shrouding her activities in the cloak of a fight for ordinary Romanians sick of their country's endemic corruption. She was backed unconditionally by the EU's senior leadership, who glorified her in the face of growing evidence of her abuse of office, Stalinist tactics and her use of secret, highly illegal 'protocols' signed with the shadowy intelligence services that ensured her an eye-watering 92% conviction rate.

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Kovesi's final months in office saw a slew of acquittals from Romania's appeal courts on high-level cases she had presided over. Judges who refused to be intimidated by the intelligence services threw out cases based on convictions they considered to be deeply flawed. After a protracted battle with the country's elected government, Kovesi was finally ousted following an intervention from the country's highest court and in the teeth of bitter opposition from a clueless EU which had bought into her propaganda. Mere weeks after losing her position, Kovesi found herself facing charges of accepting bribes, abuse of office, and false testimony.

The EU has responded by doubling down on its support and, as if to reinforce how little it understands the situation, it has placed Kovesi on the shortlist for the EU's newly created role as its first Chief Prosecutor. The move was greeted with horror by Romania's Cabinet, much of its media, and the former SRI Colonel Daniel Dragomir who blew the whistle on the decimation of Romania's rule of law by the SRI/DNA nexus. Dragomir slammed the decision as "Arrogant and stupid? against all those who were abused by Kovesi's Stalin-like activities" and predicted that it would fuel an even greater anti-EU movement in a country already sick of the EU's cack-handed meddling in its affairs.

The EU claims that measures taken by the Romanian government to curb the power of the anti-corruption prosecutors represent a "back-sliding on its commitment to the rule of law". Yet many in Romania's government are genuinely attempting the thankless and dangerous task of trying to unravel a security and law enforcement apparatus that has changed little from the Soviet era. There can be no doubt that other, more self-serving politicians, may well be keen to see reduced anti-corruption powers to avoid prosecution for their own wrongdoing. But, thanks to the systematic undermining of due process in the country, it is now almost impossible to work out who is corrupt and who has simply ended up on the hit list of the intelligence services.

Meanwhile, the lack of honest leadership in Romania's security, law enforcement and judicial systems is exacting a heavy toll.  It is the leading human rights abuser in the EU, with instances of torture and inhumane treatment all too common. In the Council of Europe only Turkey and Russia have a worse record. Systemic corruption has led to a near collapse in its healthcare system, as crooked officials siphon off funds and a 'brain drain' of its talented doctors and nurses continues to haemorrhage skilled workers. It has the highest child mortality rates in Europe and no new hospitals have been built there since the fall of Communism in 1989. This is on top of some of the worst infrastructure on the continent, with the shortest motorway network in the EU despite having a land mass almost equal to the UK.

In the face of this nightmare, 3.4 million Romanians have voted with their feet and fled the country since it joined the EU in 2007. This exodus is unprecedented anywhere in Europe, representing 17 percent of the voting population trying to escape the turmoil, with only war-torn Syria seeing a higher percentage of its citizens emigrate.

Romania is emblematic of a failure of leadership, revealing a nation wholly unsuited to be an EU member and an EU unwilling to face the reality of what is happening there for fear of losing face. It also shows how terrible leaders are often a product of deep weaknesses within their own organisations. Just as Theresa May's election wouldn't have been possible without nearly 200 MPs having such catastrophic judgement as to believe she was the best person for the job, so Romania's EU Presidency couldn't have happened were it not for the hubristic belief amongst senior EU officials that disparate nations can be made more alike through sheer force of will and that triumphant declarations of unity will lead to cohesion.

Commodus's father – the last great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, would often ask himself "What illusion about myself do I entertain?" Those MPs desperate for us to remain a part of this crumbling bloc – keen to block a true Brexiteer from taking the Conservative leadership – and those EU commissioners confidently crowing about the strength of the union, should look at Romania and ask themselves the same question about the EU.

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