Romania’s first presidency of the EU Council, since its entrance in the Union back in 2007, has started in January 2019. “Cohesion, a common European value” is the motto chosen in Bucharest to carry out this important task, in a crucial period even for the common European project.
Brexit, security concern, migration and the next spring European elections: in this tense framework Romania has to demonstrate it is a member country able to fulfil its role. Furthermore, a key challenge in the next months will be to repair the divide arisen between Western Europe countries and Visegrad, with the rule of law having a prominent role in this task and with the same Romania under “the eye” of the EU because of the justice reform approved by its government.
“Convergence” is one of the key words chosen by Bucharest government and it seems true that convergence and cohesion are highly needed in this period in the EU: the informal summit scheduled in the Romanian city of Sibiu on the 9th of May – just some week before the crucial European elections – will be the decisive test both for Bucharest and Brussels. The Romanian Presidency of the Council of the EU aims to bring a contribution to ensuring convergence and cohesion in Europe, in order to achieve sustainable and equal development opportunities for all citizens and Member States, by increasing competitiveness and reducing development gaps, promoting connectivity and digitalization, stimulating entrepreneurship and consolidating the European industrial policy. All this, in a period of rising uncertainty due to Brexit, and the perspective of an “disordered” exit of London from the EU. The same Romania is directly interested in Brexit outcome, due to the high number of Romanian and eastern Europe citizens living and working in the United Kingdom. For this reason, Brexit will surely be one of the criteria to assess the outcome of Romania’s semester.
Furthermore, Bucharest aims at ensuring “a safer Europe”, through increased cohesion among EU Member States in dealing with the new security challenges that threaten the safety of citizens and through supporting the cooperation initiatives in the field. And it wants “Europe, as a stronger global actor”, promoting the enlargement policy, the European action in its neighbourhood, further implementing the Global Strategy, ensuring the necessary resources for the EU, and implementing all of the EU’s global commitments. Romania, as last point, aims at strengthening an “Europe of common values”, stimulating solidarity and cohesion of the EU by promoting policies on combating discrimination, ensuring equal chances and equal treatment between men and women, as well as by increasing the involvement of the citizens, in particular the youth, in the European debates.
Romania’s presidency was preceded by some criticism: before the beginning of the semester European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker said Bucharest “has not yet fully understood what it means to preside over EU countries.” This was due to the dispute opened between EU and Romania over contested justice reform approved by Bucharest’s government. The current government has embarked on a number of judicial reforms, one of which is intended to grant amnesty to politicians who have been hit with corruption charges, drawing this summer thousands of protesters in the streets of several Romania’s cities. Social Democrat Party leader (leading party in the government) Liviu Dragnea is currently banned from holding the office of prime minister due to a conviction handed down in June last year. “Many Romanians are worried that the proposed changes to these laws may undermine the long-standing efforts in the fight against corruption and the independence of the judiciary. These are concerns the Commission very much shares”, also highligthed the European Commission vice president Frans Timmersmans,adding: “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”. In any case, Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila said she is determined “to demonstrate that Romania is a reliable partner in consolidating the European project and ensuring its cohesion”. But it should be considered also that the president Klaus Iohannis and prime minister are also involved in a separate dispute, in which Dancila asserted that going to EU Council meetings is part of her job, not the president’s. Also, for this reason, in Bucharest for the official opening ceremony of the semester, Juncker said he “counts on the energy and unity of the whole Romanian nation, its political forces and institutions to take all decisions necessary to make our Union advance in the coming months”.
But beyond Romania’s internal problem, it should be kept in mind that the EU is directly engaged in a face-off with Eastern Europe and Visegrad countries. And in this sense is not clear if Romania government could support Brussels in dealing with this issue: asked if the presidency will support a proposal to link EU funding to rule of law adherence, Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Meleșcanu said it is “an idea floating in the air” and added that there will need to be more “concrete elements” about what it would entail. His comments are more softened respect to his previous reaction, when he said such linking “would constitute a gross violation of the EU’s fundamental principles”. Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland have also voiced their concerns with the proposed mechanism.The European Parliament in January broadly backed the European Commission’s proposal to cut funds to EU countries that do not uphold the rule of law. But member States seems highly divided, also considering that the Commission is asking net contributors to pay more for a bigger overall budget, with the UK due to leave at the end of March. It falls indeed to the Romanian Council presidency to steer negotiations on the next seven years budget (2021-2027). And member states are divided over plans to pay for increased spending on research by cutting farm subsidies in the common agricultural policy, and cohesion funds that go to Europe’s less rich member states, including Romania.
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