CONFERENCE CALL: Romania to take over EU Council presidency at a critical moment

CONFERENCE CALL: Romania to take over EU Council presidency at a critical moment
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest October 19, 2018

Romania will take over the presidency of the EU Council at a critical time, as the bloc prepares for Brexit as well as tackling issues such as migration and enlargement. But the constant political infighting in Bucharest and the illiberal policies that are setting the country at odds with Brussels raise the inevitable question: is Romania up to the job? 

The exit of the UK from the European Union is unprecedented and arguably the biggest challenge the union has faced in its 61-year history. As the holder of the rotating presidency of the European Council for the first time since it joined the EU in 2007, Romania will have a special role in creating conditions for discussions of the EU’s future post-Brexit and for the future relationship between the EU and the UK. A critical date will be the summit in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu in May 2019, at which EU leaders are expected to reaffirm their commitment to the bloc. 

Speaking at the Aspen Forum in Bucharest on October 9, Romania’s Prime Minister Viorica Dancila talked about Romania being “about to assume a mandate of unprecedented importance and responsibility to the presidency of the Council of the European Union”. She anticipated the first six months of 2019 would be “dynamic”, alluding to the May European elections — which to some extent are expected to be a battle between old-style European politicians and the new populist nationalists — in addition to Brexit, and stressed that, “We must have the capacity to comply with our commitments.”

“Want it or not, we have to deal with the [Brexit] situation and engage with our British partners to try to find a solution,” said Victor Negrescu, Minister Delegate for European Affairs, at the Aspen Forum the following day. 

Pressed on the possible consequences of a no-deal Brexit, Negrescu appeared optimistic that a deal with the UK would be struck by the end of the year, most likely within the next four weeks. This would mean Romania, during its upcoming EU Council presidency, would be involved in establish the future pattern of relations between the EU and the UK. “A different type of partnership that has never existed before will have to be defined. We hope it will be a constructive one,” he said. In practical terms, Romania’s role as the holder of the presidency will be to arrange meetings and set their agendas. 

Yet for all Negrescu’s optimism, other speakers took a much bleaker view of the prospects of a smooth exit for Britain. “There is a growing realisation from the point of view of someone who sits in the parliament in the UK that Brexit is a mess, a total mess. Without a vision for the future, Brexit looks like a terrifying black hole,” said Baroness Denise Kingsmill, a member of the House of Lords and chair of the Aspen Initiative UK. 

And while Negrescu anticipates a deal soon, he also pointed to some of the negative consequences of failing to reach agreement, among them the implications for international trade and business, airline connections and data exchange within multinational companies. More specifically for Romania, there is the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Romanians living in the UK to be considered. “Romanians citizens there contribute to the development of British society, we have to speak about them and make sure they have a future.”

Overshadowed by Brexit 

Brexit will clearly overshadow the Romanian EU Council presidency and any other objectives Bucharest has, but the government still has a vision for the upcoming presidency that goes beyond Brexit. 

Dancila said in her keynote speech that the motto of the presidency will be "Cohesion, a common European value”. This is in line with Bucharest’s wishes for the country to take a more central role in the European Union, and its aversion to a two-speed Europe. Currently, the country is very much seen as a member of the periphery of the union, as one of the latest entrants (only Croatia joined more recently) that is not a member of either the eurozone or the Schengen area.

“I am convinced that our future remains in unity and cohesion,” the prime minister said, and went on to stress Romania’s commitment to the union, which contrasts to the more obstreperous positions of its northern neighbours: "Romania is a … pro-European society. The future of the EU is a theme of national interest for us and that is why we dedicate ourselves, with all our energy, to that.”

"We want member states to work closely together, to respect each other,” said Negrescu. “In the EU, everyone has equal opportunities. Convergence mechanisms are in place to reduce the gaps. If we want to develop the union to be great in future, we want to develop it as a whole, to make sure everyone is part of this game.” He also talked about the alienation some citizens within Romania feel: “Speaking with people in big and small communities,  they tell us: We love the EU but we would like the EU to be here, next to us, not far away from Romania.”

More specifically, Negrescu talked about Romania’s policy focus on making the EU more competitive, especially through development of the digital sector. 

And — as during neighbouring Bulgaria’s EU presidency in the first half of this year — Romanian officials promised to further progress the integration of other states in its neighbourhood, where the Western Balkans countries are eager to enter the EU. 

“Romania will focus on developments that favour the further motivation of the Western Balkan states to engage irreversibly on the path of European integration,” Dancila said. 

In addition, “Particular attention will be paid to the eastern neighbourhood, especially in the context of the 10th anniversary of the launch of the Eastern Partnership. For us, equally important is the consecration of the Black Sea region on the European Union's agenda, but also on the Danube Strategy. Emphasis will be put on concrete projects and initiatives to bring added value, clear to communities and citizens in these areas,” she added. 

Both Dancila and Negrescu voiced optimism about the good the EU Council presidency will do for Romania. Negrescu talked about the presidency as “the kind of opportunity that comes once in half a generation”, and added that he was confident Romania would “deliver a high quality presidency”.

Similarly, Kingsmill called the upcoming presidency a "good opportunity for Romania to raise its profile in the European context … we hear lots from the founders of the EU, now it’s time for the new countries of the EU to have their voice and raise their profile.”

Romania has long aimed to take a more central role in the EU, but its position has become more complex lately as the government has been at odds with the EU on issues mostly related to the undermining of the fight against corruption and the controversial judicial reforms that critics say will undermine the independence of the judiciary. 

A PR disaster in the making? 

Looking at the history of neighbouring Bulgaria’s EU Council presidency in the first half of this year, there is plenty of scope for problems as the titleholder inevitably comes under extra scrutiny. Bulgaria’s presidency started off with mass protests over the government’s decision to allow development within the Pirin national park, and descended into farce when one of the leaders of the United Patriots, the far right junior partner in Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s coalition government, launched a bizarre racist attack on German MEP Ska Keller who had attended one of the protests. 

Romania has already clashed recently with EU figures and institutions over its overhaul of the justice system, that threatens to lead to a similar rift as those with Poland or Hungary. European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans warned on October 1 that if it reaches the conclusion that “the rules are broken” by Romania’s revised justice laws, the Commission will not hesitate to take “the right measures”. Two days later, Dancila slammed the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) used by the European Union to monitor reforms in the judicial sector in a speech to the European Parliament.

Even Romania’s own European commissioner, Corina Cretu, has turned on Bucharest, saying she is fed up with “insults” from the Romanian government, and calling on officials to apply themselves to coming up with mature infrastructure projects that are able to attract more funds. 

On top of this, within the country there are growing rifts within the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), which has already appointed three prime ministers since its return to power in the December 2016 general election. The incumbent Dancila has been mocked for her frequent gaffes — in one recent example she accused “Protestants” of beating up a member of the gendarmerie during an anti-government protest. 

The ruling style and rhetoric of the current coalition have alienated international investors, with the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Romania slamming ruling party leader Liviu Dragnea for his claim that multinational companies are funding protests in the country. “Such speculations set a dangerous precedent for the Romanian democracy, sending intimidatory signals towards social movements and the private sector, negatively impacting the business climate and Romania’s overall external image, which, in its turn affects the reliance of Romania’s external partners on the country’s capacity to perform regional roles, such as the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2019,” the council said in a statement. 

Moreover, relations between the government and President Klaus Iohannis have deteriorated to the extent that a row broke out this summer when budget revisions threatened the funding for the presidency, which claimed it could no longer afford to properly host international events like the Three Seas Initiative summit in September.