No stranger to gaffes, Romania’s prime minister is perhaps best known for one particularly glaring slip of the tongue not long into her tenure.

Addressing colleagues at a government meeting in May — as well as a live online audience — Viorica Dancila proudly declared that “we’re reducing democracy.” Despite quickly correcting that last word to “bureaucracy,” the Internet wasn’t in a forgiving mood and the blunder spawned an avalanche of memes that still haunt her.

 As the Black Sea nation prepares to take over the European Union’s rotating presidency for the first time, many within the bloc are starting to think Dancila’s original sentiment may not have been far from the mark. Concerns over the rule of law and corruption have triggered warnings  from the European Commission and the U.S., as well as the biggest protests since the fall of communism. Comparisons to populist agitators Poland and Hungary are becoming more frequent.
Steering Romania’s illiberal turn is ruling-party boss Liviu Dragnea, who pulls the strings  of government despite being barred from the premiership because of a criminal conviction. It’s his blueprint to corral the judiciary and hobble efforts  to punish crooked officials that have irked the country’s Western allies. His success will determine whether Romania joins a list of EU trouble spots.

“The indications are that the EU is losing patience,” said Michael Taylor, a political analyst at Oxford Analytica. “It may be learning from the way it’s been defied by Hungary and Poland.”

Sanctions Push

The bloc is pursuing unprecedented sanctions against those countries over risks to the rule of law. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the self-styled pioneer of “illiberal democracy,” has curbed independence of the media, the courts and civil society. Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has largely followed the same blueprint, though is more ideologically driven.

Buttressed by strong economies , they’re unlikely to back down.

In Romania, the Social Democrat-led coalition is in the midst of a two-year campaign to bring the courts to heel. Critics such as President Klaus Iohannis say the aim is to legalize low-level graft and keep party members out of prison. Hundreds have been charged or convicted in malfeasance probes, prompting the government to remove the chief anti-corruption prosecutor. Demonstrations persist, but numbers are dwindling.

While the Constitutional Court has struck down parts of the judicial makeover, its effects are seeping into Romania’s democracy rankings. Romania scored second-worst in the EU in a recent survey by Bertelsmann Stiftung. It’s rated the same for corruption by Transparency International.