Ion Galea: Romania will continue working for Western Balkans integration

Migration represents one of the most important challenges for international cooperation and common efforts are needed to make it safe, orderly and legal

The Romanian Presidency of the EU Council will focus on four pillars of action: Europe of convergence, a safer Europe, Europe as a stronger global actor and Europe of common values. Given the current challenges in the international context, the Romanian Presidency will pay special attention to the European elections as well, and the country will promote the European common answer for migration management, ambassador of Romania to Bulgaria says in an interview to Europost.

Your Excellency, Romania starts its first EU Presidency on 1 January. What are the country's main priorities for the next six months?

Indeed, on the 1st of January, Romania took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union and it will do so with the slogan “Cohesion, a common European value”. As for the priorities of the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the EU, the four pillars of action it will focus on are: Europe of convergence, ensuring cohesion for sustainable and equal development opportunities for all citizens and Member States through increasing competitiveness and decreasing development gaps, social progress, stimulating entrepreneurship and consolidating industrial policy; a safer Europe, through an increased cohesion among EU Member States in dealing with the new security challenges; Europe as a stronger global actor to further consolidating the global role of the EU through promoting the enlargement policy, the European action in its Neighbourhood, and implementing all of the EU's global commitments; and Europe of common values, aimed at stimulating solidarity of the EU through promoting policies on combating discrimination, equal chances and equal treatment between men and women, as well as through increased involvement of the citizens in the European debates.

Romania is the last country from Eastern Europe, besides Croatia, to take the Presidency. What has the country learned from its close counterparts such as Bulgaria for example?

In our view, the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU was a very successful one and I wish to seize the occasion and congratulate your country for this achievement. Romania has had an excellent cooperation with the Bulgarian side, both during the Bulgarian Presidency and after it had finished. Thus, we had what could be called a mechanism of exchange of best practices (carried out through frequent meetings between the Bulgarian minister for the Presidency of the EU and the Romanian minister for European affairs) and we are convinced that the Bulgarian experience will be highly beneficial for the Romanian Presidency.

The Bulgarian EU Presidency put an accent on Western Balkans and digitalisation. Will Romania in a way go on this path?

As far as EU's external relations are concerned, the European perspective of the Western Balkans will be a priority for Romania also, together with the Eastern Partnership. The enlargement policy is of strategic importance both for the Union and for our partners in the region. Therefore, maintaining the EU's attention in the Western Balkans and continuing to encourage tangible progress from accession candidates and aspirants will be a priority for Romania during its mandate as the rotating Presidency of the Council. Our work will aim at turning the current positive momentum into sustainable dynamics in the region. Concerning digitalisation, it is a part of Romania's first priority.

Migration is a very controversial issue across the EU. What is Romania's position about it? Does it align with countries such as Hungary and Austria or with the European Commission?

Migration represents one of the most important challenges for international cooperation. It needs our common effort and an adequate management for a safe, orderly and legal migration. Romania promotes the European common answer for migration management. A comprehensive approach to the migration issue is essential for identifying immediate solutions to the present crisis, while also managing the root causes of the migration phenomenon. Romania manifests solidarity with the European efforts for managing migration, also by successfully managing a large segment of the external border and by contributing to the activity of the EU agencies in this field. Romania also supports the advancement of cooperation with the countries of origin as well as with the countries of transit in the context of implementing compacts on migration. As the Presidency of the Council of the EU, Romania needs to have a balanced approach, taking into account the lack of consensus at the EU level on this delicate issue.

Romania's Presidency coincides with European elections, which will be held in May. How will they influence the country's agenda?

First, as the Presidency of the Council of the EU, Romania's main focus during this semester will be put on the EU Council's agenda while acting as honest broker. Romania will hold the Presidency of the Council of the EU in a very important moment for the future of the EU, given the European Parliament elections in May and consequently the next institutional mandate of the EU. For the Romanian Presidency, this means less time for negotiating legislative files as the focus will be on the inter-institutional debates in the first three months of the Presidency. At the same time, it is essential for us, as Presidency, and for all EU institutions, to deliver results before the European elections. There are important files on the EU agenda that will have an impact on citizens' day-to-day lives and on the future of Europe as a whole. That is why, we will have to advance or finalise several legislative files in the first half of our mandate. Furthermore, given the current challenges in the international context, the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the EU will pay special attention to the European elections. In this sense, we are working on facilitating the implementation of the Commission's Package on securing free and fair elections and the Action Plan on tackling disinformation.

If nothing changes out of the blue, Britain will leave the EU on 29 March 2019, just in the midst of Romania's Presidency. Is the country ready to meet any extraordinary circumstances linked to this event?

The UK's withdrawal from the EU is a major priority on the agenda of the Romanian Presidency, especially as it is due to be finalised during our mandate. We believe that the Withdrawal Agreement is a fair and balanced compromise between the UK and EU's interests and has a fundamental role in ensuring legal certainty for our citizens and the business environment. As the Presidency of the Council of the EU, we follow closely the developments in this dossier. However, a high degree of uncertainty persists at the moment regarding the final stages of the Brexit process which will influence the way we carry out our mandate in the upcoming months. We are preparing, both at national and at EU27 level for every possible scenario. As Presidency, if the ratification process will advance favourably, we will ensure the necessary institutional framework for a timely approval and entry into force of the Agreement. At the same time, in case of a no-deal scenario, we are working closely with the other EU institutions to ensure the implementation of the necessary contingency measures already presented by the Commission in December. Last but not least, our Presidency will focus on preserving the unity and the principles agreed upon at EU27 level.

How will the EU change after being left by one of its biggest and most important members?

The EU will change after the exit of the UK, from several points of view: politically, economically and also socially. In our view, this unprecedented and unwanted transformation of the European project should make us reflect on how we want the EU to look like in the future and what the EU will represent for the European citizens. We believe that now, more than ever, there is a clear need to bridge the gap between the EU and the citizens. All the EU Member States and institutions should direct their efforts towards better communicating the benefits of EU membership and towards delivering concrete results with the aim of improving citizens' lives. In order to be able to achieve this goal, the EU and Member States need to have efficient policies that have proven their added value and to ensure an equal level of convergence between Member States. The Romanian Presidency of the Council of the EU will continue to promote the principle of unity and solidarity in order to advance the European project.

A serious crisis is boiling just east of Romania's borders. What is Romania's position about measures needed to calm down Russian-Ukrainian tensions, especially those in the Black Sea?

The new tensions in the Black Sea, near the Kerch strait, are a reason of serious concern and a reminder of the volatility and complexity of the situation in this area, which deteriorated significantly after the illegal annexation of Crimea, followed by the heavy militarisation of the peninsula. The red line here is obvious - the respect for the international law. Such actions have no justification and they have challenged, as never before in the past 40 years, the European security at its core. Romania has joined the other EU and NATO member states in the call on Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and ships and to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports and allow freedom of navigation. We have also reiterated our full support to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders and territorial waters and the need for Russia to return to the respect of international law. Beyond that, given the situation on the ground, NATO has increased its presence in the Black Sea region. The Alliance will continue to assess Russia's posture and to implement defensive and proportionate measures.

What are Romania's plans about joining the euro, as it is obliged to do it sooner or later?

Accession to the Eurozone is among Romania's priorities in relation with the European Union, a goal assumed by our country through the EU Accession Treaty. As an EU member aspiring to Eurozone membership, Romania closely follows all developments related to the consolidation of the Economic and Monetary Union. Of course, joining the euro is subject to fulfilment of all technical conditions set-up by the relevant EU treaties, but a thorough internal preparation of all institutions, business community and of the population is equally important in order to try to avoid negative effects at the time of European currency adoption.

It is in this logic that the National Bank of Romania established in 2010 its internal Committee for preparing Romania's passage to euro and the Government set-up this year a National Commission for substantiating a National Plan for euro's adoption. The Commission shall establish the timetable for Romania's entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM II), as well as the measures meant to prepare the Romanian economy and society for Eurozone membership and to ensure a real convergence.

Romania and Bulgaria have been considered together on many issues by European institutions. Was it helpful for both countries or was it rather an obstacle?

In our view, it was certainly helpful, since our common interests and synergies could be jointly promoted at the EU level. Romania and Bulgaria share similar views on regional, European and international topics and managed to coordinate very well on important issues such as the multi-annual financial framework/MAFF, the common agricultural policy/CAP, the cohesion policy, Brexit and Schengen. The latter remains a shared objective and we consider that both Romania and Bulgaria have fulfilled the technical criteria for joining Schengen. We should continue to promote, together, the full application of Schengen acquis for both countries.

For Bulgarians, Romanians are maybe our less known neighbours. How is it for Romanians?

A great number of Romanian tourists visit the Bulgarian seaside and the Bulgarian ski resorts. A significant number of Bulgarian tourists are coming to Romania, and, according to reports in the field, this number is constantly increasing. The excellent collaboration between the tourism agencies from both Romania and Bulgaria is completed by the constant support of both our countries' Ministries of Tourism. In addition, there is a signed Protocol by these two institutions, with the aim to attract tourists from third countries, through the promotion of joint tourism packages in Romania and Bulgaria.

What events are planned in Bulgaria to mark the Romanian Presidency?

The Romanian Embassy in Sofia plans to hold, aside from the political events entailed by the Presidency of the Council of the EU, cultural events that promote and ensure the visibility of our country, such as photography exhibitions, documentary films concerning Romania, and classical music recitals.

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Ion Galea is Ambassador of Romania to Bulgaria from 2016. Prior to this, he has served as diplomat and legal expert at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Head of Unit and Director of the European Law Directorate. From 2010 to 2016, he was General Director of Legal Affairs at the ministry. Graduate in law, Mr Galea has been an Associate Professor of International Law at the University of Bucharest and has a number of publications. He is fluent in English and French and speaks Bulgarian on working level.

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