SIBIU, Romania – Romania's long-running political turmoil was on stark display once more Thursday, as its president criticized some of his country's politicians for "attacking European institutions" and undermining its standing in the European Union.
Romania, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, has seen its political affairs mired in a spat between its president and prime minister since 2017. The head of its governing party, who is widely seen as Romania's most powerful politician, is convicted for vote-rigging and is suing the EU over allegations he defrauded the bloc.
"We have politicians who unfortunately have shown Europe that we don't only have a nice face. Politicians who attack justice, attack European institutions," President Klaus Iohannis said as he arrived in the picturesque Transylvanian town of Sibiu for a meeting of the center-right grouping in the European Parliament, the European Popular Party, ahead of an informal EU summit. "And because of this, instead of (Romania) being fully accepted, discussions over the rule of law have appeared."
Iohannis has blamed the internal political mess for Romania's failure to meet the standards required to join Europe's visa-free Schengen area.
European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said the country must make further efforts to fully reach European standards on rule of law.
"They have to make efforts to reach the virtuous European crossroads," Juncker said as he arrived for the summit.
Even before the former communist country took over the EU presidency in January, many in Brussels had voiced concerns about its suitability. The role of the six-month presidency requires keeping EU business flowing, though it doesn't have the authority to undermine or block communal business.
The main bone of contention recently has been a law proposed by the governing Social Democratic Party, PSD, that would essentially grant amnesty to politicians accused of corruption. That would include PSD head Liviu Dragnea, considered the country's de facto leader and the true power behind the prime minister.
Dragnea has been blocked from being prime minster himself because of a 2016 conviction for vote-rigging and is currently appealing a 2018 corruption conviction in which he received a 3 ½ year prison sentence over the employment of two party members at a public agency.
Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, who has chafed at not being invited to the EU summit, has accused western European leaders of double standards when they criticized Romania over corruption and a crackdown on anti-government protesters.
Iohannis, who served as mayor of Sibiu for about 14 years, recently called a referendum for May 26, the same day as European parliamentary elections, seeking to ban the government from amending criminal law by emergency decrees, and ban those convicted of corruption-related crimes from obtaining pardons or amnesty. Some have seen the referendum as a move to boost voter turnout for the European elections and increase support for candidates opposed to the PSD.
But Iohannis insists fighting corruption is his main aim.
"There are political forces whose leaders want to be placed above the law. Who don't like it when fundamental institutions of the state of law investigate and bring to light acts of corruption and theft of public money, be it national public money or European," he said.
Juncker, speaking on Wednesday at a discussion with young people in Sibiu alongside Iohannis, said he was "not happy with everything happening in the European Union. I'm not happy with everything happening in Romania too."
Iohannis retorted: "That makes two of us."
Raf Casert in Sibiu, Romania contributed to this story.