Romania Assumes EU Presidency for the First Time Ever in Tough Times

Romania Assumes EU Presidency for the First Time Ever in Tough Times

A divided leadership and society in Romania is to preside the EU during Brexit and the 2019 EU elections.

One of the EU’s most recent newcomers, Romania, has assumed the rotating six-month Presidency of the European Union for the first time in history for a six-month term that promises to be filled with major challenges.

Romania joined the EU back in 2007, together with Bulgaria, another post-communist Eastern European country, which already held the EU Presidency in the first half of 2018.

Romania’s economy has been among the top in the EU in terms of economic growth in recent years.

However, the Balkan country has been struggling with political tensions, including at times massive and violent street protests against the center-left government led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which has been led by three different Prime Ministers since 2016.

Romania’s increasingly populist Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Viorica Dancila but in practice dominated led by PSD leader Liviu Dragnea has been in conflict with the European Commission in Brussels over the government’s attempts to clamp down on the independence of the Romanian judiciary.

Three days before Romania was set to assume the EU Presidency from Austria, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker questioned the leadership in Bucharest and its fitness to lead the European Union.

The EC chief made it clear he had “doubts” the Romanian Cabinet had “fully understood what it means to preside over the countries of the EU”.

The six-month term of the Romanian EU Presidency includes the projected date of Brexit, March 29, 2019, the 2019 EU elections that could be marred by the rise of populism, and the negotiations for the next EU budget, not to mention the never ending possibilities for unforeseen challenges.

Romania’s relations with the EU institutions in Brussels have been strained recently especially with respect to the PSD government’s attempts to “reform” the Romanian judiciary by curbing its independence.

According to the European Commission, the steps in question undermine the rule of law in Romania, and, respectively, its ability to crack down on high-level corruption, an area where the post-communist country actually made substantial progress over the past decade.

At the same time, critics say Romania’s government is starting to project nationalist rhetoric similar to that of two other Eastern EU states, Hungary and Poland.

Because of the EC’s defense of the rule of law in Romania, the most powerful Romanian, Dragnea, has accused Brussels of denying Bucharest the “right to hold its own opinions”.

The planned reforms in question provide for a criminal amnesty for politicians including Dragnea, who received a suspended sentence for electoral fraud in 2016, and is also under investigation on two other criminal counts.

“[The EU officials] have the feeling, perhaps justifiably, that these reforms are for the benefit of Dragnea”, Romanian political scientist Andrei Taranu told AFP, as cited by France24.

As the amnesty decree is to be issued shortly, an EU source warned it would cross a “red line” for Brussels.

Romanian society is “very polarized and divided”, according to political analyst Radu Alexandru.

Each of the three Prime Ministers to have been in charge of the leftist Cabinet since 2016, Dancila included, has been in conflict with Romania’s pro-European, center-right President Klaus Iohannis, who represents the country on the European Council.

Romania has already received EUR 32 billion in EU cohesion funds. Some of that money has been used to supply running water to 40% of the country’s rural homes, only 1% of which had running water at the end of communism in 1989.

Romania’s EU Presidency will be succeeded by Finland’s on July 1, 2019. Croatia, the latest newcomer to the EU (in 2013), and the last EU member state so far to have never chaired the Union, will follow suit with the Croatian EU Presidency on January 1, 2020.

(Banner image: Romanian EU Presidency)

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