Romania’s EU Presidency: Give the government a chance!

09 January 2019

Romania can succeed with the rotating Presidency of the EU in January-June 2019, provided the country’s government is allowed to concentrate on doing its job.

by Gabor Hunya

The Romanian presidency will have to confront several big issues, including the UK exit from the EU on March 29th, European parliament elections to be held on May 23rd-26th May, and an EU summit in Sibiu on May 9th. Progress should be achieved in other areas including negotiations on the next EU budget, new regulation of migration, and the role of Frontex.

Romanian government members and President Klaus Iohannis will need high mediation skills to achieve further progress on all these issues. The government has to act in cooperation with the president, who represents the country in international affairs, and to put aside their disagreements. The integrity of the government itself is being challenged by conflict in the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD), and with the opposition over the reform of the judiciary. Not unrelated, European institutions – which remain somewhat mistrustful of the Romanian authorities – may impose excessive control and exert tutelage over the government, preventing it from following its agenda.

However, the motivation to succeed is high: Romanians are usually very sensitive concerning their image abroad, and would like to use the opportunity of the presidency to improve the country’s international standing.

For more cohesion in Europe

The motto of the Romanian Presidency is "Cohesion, a common European value". This is an appropriate choice for a country interested in catching-up with the core EU member states. As Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă said at the plenary session of the Romanian Parliament on December 12th, “the government will act to reduce development gaps, to ensure equal access to benefits, to remove the factors generating separations or hierarchies between the member states”.

This is a clear formulation of the justified desires of an EU member state with per capita GDP at only at 63% of the EU average (at purchasing power parity). Better cohesion among countries, regions and social groups is not only in the interest of the less wealthy, but all who want to achieve progress in European integration. The envisaged cohesion is not merely the matter of transfer of funds, but also of equal treatment and openness to diversity.

Attacks on democratic order can be tackled domestically

The danger to democracy in Romania comes mainly from PSD president Liviu Dragnea, who wants to take full control over the government and the country. Having been convicted in several, albeit minor, corruption cases, and facing prosecution in others, he is not allowed to become prime minister. Therefore, he intends to achieve a pardon by a government decree. Just four days after the prime minister’s pro-EU speech, Mr. Dragnea – in addition to accusing the EU of discriminatory treatment – asked the government to make a decision on his amnesty and pardoning, claiming that this is needed in order to “repair abuses and injustices”. The National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) has achieved progress in the fight against corruption, but it has certainly not been faultless, especially when prejudging suspects publicly. Nevertheless, the government has not been enthusiastic to fulfil Mr Dragnea’s wish, knowing that it would undermine the legal order and meet with public anger. Demonstrations in August 2018 showed the power of the street to defend European and democratic values. The opposition to Dragnea seems strong enough to prevent Romania following the nationalist and illiberal course of Hungary or Poland.

Romanians are basically pro-European, and Romania is deeply interlinked with other member states by trade, investment and migration. Euroscepticism is not widespread and does not influence government policy. However, it is growing. The tutelage of EU institutions such as the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), or keeping the country in the waiting room for Schengen, is felt to be discriminatory by many Romanians. International meddling in the judicial reform process is often too direct and one-sided. It is better if fundamental discussions related to laws and institutions are carried out by the effected society. The common European interest to maintain and develop democratic values and procedures can be safeguarded by diplomatic means, rather than detailed interventions by those who are not fully aware of the local legal context.

This article originally appeared in German in der Standard.
photo: Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union