By Luiza Ilie
SIBIU, Romania (Reuters) - The European Union warned Romania on Thursday it could face firmer action over the government's legal changes that the bloc has said threaten the rule of law.
The EU's executive European Commission has repeatedly said laws brought in by Romania's ruling Social Democrats - including moves to reduce statutes of limitation that would close some ongoing graft cases - have reversed decades of reforms.
The bloc is already seeking sanctions against Romania's ex-communist peers Hungary and Poland for their moves to put the courts, media, academics and advocacy groups under tight state control.
Asked whether further measures were needed to ensure Romania adheres to the bloc's standards, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters: "Yes, Romania does deserve particular attention, that's something we'll be doing in the coming days and weeks."
"The rule of law must apply to everybody and we will continue in this way," he said as EU leaders met in Romania, which holds the rotating EU presidency.
Romania's ruling Social Democrats did not respond directly. But their leader, Liviu Dragnea, told supporters at an European Parliament election rally in the eastern city of Iasi that the country has been treated unjustly in the bloc for too long. He urged them to vote for "patriotic" Social Democrats.
His party has said its legal changes are needed to protect politicians against what it sees as abuses by judges and prosecutors.
EU leaders - who already keep Romania's justice system under special monitoring - were meeting 400km (250 miles) away in the central city of Sibiu to decide their future after Brexit. They agreed that protecting democratic standards would be one of their main objectives.
"Today it was obvious that for all of us - maybe almost all of us - that the rule of law is the essence of our political activity," European Council President Donald Tusk said after the meeting.
Manfred Weber, the candidate of the center-right European People's Party (EPP) to take over the helm of the European Commission later this year, said he would bring in tools to enforce those standards.
"The future European Commission under my leadership will insist on the principle of the rule of law. I will present a binding rule of law mechanism for the whole European Union," he said, without going into detail.
Romania's centrist President Klaus Iohannis is a strong critic of the ruling Social Democrats and wants Romanians to vote in a May 26 national referendum on whether the government should stop changing anti-graft laws by executive decrees.
The referendum will be held on the same day as the EU-wide European Parliament election.
"We have a few politicians who do not want (the rule of law) here but the decision is in Romanian citizens' hands," Iohannis said at the news conference with Juncker and Tusk in Sibiu.
"We'll have elections ... and we'll have a clear answer from our citizens and I can hardly wait for it."
(Reporting by Luiza Ilie, Editing by Gabriela Baczynska and Andrew Heavens)