Romania takes over EU presidency

Bucharest will focus on identifying solutions in the spirit of a stronger and more united Europe

Photo: EPA The symbolic takeover of the Presidency from Federal Chancellor of the Republic of Austria Sebastian Kurz to Romanian PM Viorica Dancila.

Romania took over the EU's rotating presidency on 1 January at a tumultuous time for the bloc and just days after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker voiced doubts about the country's ability to do the job. Brussels is already at loggerheads with the increasingly populist government in Bucharest on multiple fronts and Juncker's comments highlight some of the strains.

Romania will be in charge for the next six months as the EU faces a series of tricky tests - most notably Brexit, European parliamentary elections, and wrangling over the next budget. The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, the negotiation of the future European budget, the European Parliament elections in May 2019, preceded by a campaign with major political stakes and messages with potential for disinformation and division at European level, will increase the complexity of the agenda.

Within this evolving framework, the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union will aim to promote a vision focused on the principle of European cohesion on all dimensions - political, economic and social. Working under the motto “Cohesion, a common European value”, the Romanian presidency will focus on identifying solutions that reflect both the interests of the Member States and the vision of the European institutions, acting in the spirit of a stronger and more united Europe. In this vein, the priorities of the Romanian presidency reflect the need for cohesion and have been assigned to four main pillars of action - Europe of convergence: growth, cohesion, competitiveness, connectivity; A safer Europe; Europe as a stronger global actor; Europe of common values.

The Eastern European nation, which takes the presidency for the first time as it succeeds Austria, has been one of the EU's most consistently Europhile Member States since it joined in 2007. But its left-wing government has recently begun to adopt the sort of nationalist rhetoric expounded by nearby Hungary and Poland. All three are embroiled in disputes with the EU over controversial reforms that critics say undermine the rule of law.

Liviu Dragnea, head of the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) and widely seen as Romania's most powerful man, has slammed the EU as “unfair”, claiming Brussels is seeking to deny Bucharest the “right to hold its own opinions”. In remarks to Die Welt on 29 December, Juncker said that even if Romania was “technically well prepared” for the presidency, the “Bucharest government has not fully understood what it means to preside over the countries of the EU”. The EU presidency “requires a willingness to listen to others and a willingness to put one's own concerns in the background. I have some doubts about this,” Juncker said.

One of the main reasons for the cooling of relations between Bucharest and Brussels is the PSD's planned overhaul of Romania's judiciary, which the government says is aimed at clamping down on “abuses” by judges and magistrates. But the European Commission wants the reforms scrapped, saying they undermine the fight against corruption in one of the EU's most graft-prone states.

The Romanian government has proposed a criminal amnesty for politicians, including Dragnea, who was given a suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud in 2016 and is being investigated in two other criminal cases. The amnesty decree is expected to be issued soon, with a European source warning that such a step would cross a “red line” for Brussels.

Moreover, Romania may find it difficult to speak with a united voice, given the tug-of-war between the government of Viorica Dancila - the third PSD prime minister since 2016 - and centre-right President Klaus Iohannis. Iohannis, a keen pro-European who has frequently clashed with the government, represents Romania on the European Council.

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