By Foo Yun Chee
STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Romania appears to be backsliding in its judicial reforms, the European Commission said on Wednesday, underlining its concerns that the country could be a potential domino after Hungary and Poland with their perceived authoritarian drift.
Plans by Romania's Social Democrat-led ruling coalition to overhaul the judiciary and change legislation to potentially decriminalise several corruption-related offences have drawn criticism from the EU, the U.S. State Department and Romanian magistrates, and have triggered large street protests.
This is a worrying development, European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans.
"We have seen substantial progress in the past but things are now moving backwards in a way that would be damaging for the place that Romania has built as an EU member state in recent years," Timmermans told EU lawmakers during a debate on Romania.
"I call on the Romanian authorities to conduct full and impartial investigations of this issue," he said.
"The reform to the judicial laws and criminal court are interlinked and it must be avoided that they have a negative impact on the independence of the judiciary and their effectiveness to combat corruption."
Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila dismissed the criticism. "Do not deny Romania things that are permitted to other member states of the Union and do not allow that in Romania, things should happen that are unacceptable in other member states," she told European Parliament.
"We want to be a partner but we want to be equal partners. No one never will be able to turn Romania back from its European road," Dancila said.
The centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest in the European Parliament, joined in the criticism.
"Romanians fought against communism for their liberties. They tore down a tyranny and built a democracy. Such brave and noble efforts should not be undermined," said Esteban Gonzalez Pons, EPP vice-chairman.
(Additional reporting by Clement Rossignol; Editing by Mark Heinrich)