BUCHAREST: European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Thursday (Jan 10) told Romania there could be "no compromise" in the fight against corruption in a blunt warning at the official launch of its EU presidency.
Romania has begun its six-month stint at the helm of the bloc's rotating presidency with its increasingly populist government at loggerheads with Brussels over the rule of law and the fight against corruption.
The commission, the EU's powerful executive arm, wants the left-leaning Romanian government to scrap controversial judicial reforms, saying they undermine the battle against graft.
At a grand ceremony to launch Romania's first EU presidency, both Juncker and EU Council President Donald Tusk urged the country to stick with its commitments to European values.
"The European Union is made from compromise, but when it comes to human rights, when it comes to the rule of law, when it comes to respect for the rule of law, when it comes to the struggle against corruption, no compromise is possible," Juncker said.
Romania's presidency is set to see the EU lose a member for the first time, with Britain scheduled to quit on Mar 29, as well as familiar budget wrangles and European Parliament elections where eurosceptic parties are hoping for a breakthrough.
The government has recently begun to adopt the sort of nationalist rhetoric seen in fellow former communist states Hungary and Poland.
Tusk - who delivered his 10-minute speech entirely in Romanian, to the delight of the audience - said the country could become "a good example or a dire warning" and he cautioned against the siren lure of populist politics.
"To those in the European Union who might think that playing outside the agreed rules and cutting corners means strength, I say: you are wrong. It means weakness," Tusk said.
"To those working hard to defend European values, our freedoms and rights, I say: keep fighting."
In a sign of the febrile atmosphere in Romanian politics, outside the grand Athenaeum concert hall where the ceremony took place, hundreds of demonstrators protested against the government.
Conspicuous by his absence from the gala was Liviu Dragnea, head of the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) and widely seen as Romania's most powerful man, who has slammed the EU as "unfair", claiming Brussels is seeking to deny Bucharest the "right to hold its own opinions".