The rotating EU Presidency is an underappreciated part of the complex EU decision-making process. It allows member states to take over coordination activities for some of the EU’s most pressing political and legislative initiatives, for periods of 6 months, providing them with a platform to showcase some of the best assets they bring to the EU table. It also allows them to promote their own projects and profiles, for example how Estonia consolidated its ‘digital country’ brand during its mandate.
But what happens when the internal politics of a member state are so dysfunctional that serious concerns arise whether that country can even handle the presidency? We were supposed to see that in action when Bulgaria took up the presidency in the first half of 2018. Instead, Bulgaria quietly and diligently did its job, managing to, among others, bring the Western Balkans to the top of the EU agenda.
It is now Romania’s turn to cause worry to the rest of the Union, as its internal dynamics and political infighting threaten to derail the January-July 2019 term.
Over the course of the next 7-8 months, I will be dedicating this space to covering Romania’s presidency. From juicy political drama to the rule of law to Brussels policy issues, ‘Keeping up with the Romanians’ will bring you the most relevant news and provide you with analysis of what it means within the bigger picture.
The project is dedicated to Brussels bubble audiences who want a deeper understanding of the next few months and the people taking over the Council presidency, as well as to Romanians interested in how their country is represented abroad. My perspective is informed by my being Brussels-based; things sometimes look differently from here than they do from Bucharest.
It’s a new project for me, so feedback and comments are even more appreciated than usual.
So, what is the current state of play?
The backdrop to Romania’s chaotic politics on the cusp of taking over the Council presidency is, unsurprisingly, the increase in nationalist and illiberal discourse across Europe. The country has not been immune to the virus and is increasingly seen as a new partner to the infamous illiberal posse in Central and Eastern Europe.
The ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) is one of the most populist European ruling parties, but often gets overlooked when populist parties are listed. It can claim the distinct performance of being at once one of the last remaining nominally-socialist parties in power in Europe, and one of the most nationalist.
Led by a twice-convicted Liviu Dragnea, PSD is currently working hard to dismantle the progress made by Romania in anti-corruption over the past decade. Dragnea is barred from being PM because of his convictions and is awaiting another court decision. Critics argue that this personal vendetta is currently setting the course for the entire party apparatus.
The party recently purged several high-profile members, most notably Gabriela Firea, Bucharest mayor and vocal critic of Dragnea. Firea was considered a shoe-in to be PSD’s candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for the second half of 2019, which now leaves the field wide open for a candidacy from Viorica Dancila (currently PM and Dragnea’s stand-in) or even Dragnea himself.
The latest Cooperation and Verification Mechanism report (the EU framework still in place for judicial monitoring in Romania and Bulgaria) was very critical of Romania’s reforms to the judiciary and Criminal Code. Romania was hoping to have the CVM lifted by January 1, 2019; however, the report introduces eight new recommendations to the existing 12, a big step backward.
Moreover, the European Parliament voted a resolution expressing MEPs’ deep concern over the rule of law and the changes of judicial and criminal legislation which will undermine the fight against corruption. PSD MEPs and national politicians reacted angrily with a distinctly self-pitying discourse, claiming Romania was being treated as a second-rate member.
With this clash with Brussels at the forefront, Romania is preparing for its Council Presidency term between 1 Jan 2019 and 1 July 2019.
Fun fact: the logo chosen for the presidency depicts an old proto-Romanian (Dacian) battle standard – a wolf with a serpent’s tail. It remains unclear to this day why this particular symbol was picked, as it more readily represents going to war against invading armies than it does cooperating within a family of like-minded nations. It is worth noting that the current version of the logo features the EU logo and colors prominently, something that the original version did not.
The logo’s current design
The logo’s initial design
Romania will have the unenviable task of overseeing the Brexit negotiations, hosting a Future of Europe summit on 9 May, where national leaders “are expected to mark the culmination of this process with a renewed commitment to an EU that delivers on the issues that really matter to people.” (according to the EC), and acting as Sherpa for a number of legislative packages still on the EU agenda as the Parliament and Commission begin to wrap up their current mandates. In addition, the European Parliament elections will take place in May 2019.
The country will have to manage all of this without Victor Negrescu, former Minister for Europe until very recently when he resigned unexpectedly, presumably because of his failure to ‘soften up’ Brussels on matters like the rule of law, where PSD is trampling norms and legislation.
President Iohannis also caused concern last week when he claimed that Romania is not ready to take over the Council presidency, blaming a dysfunctional and corrupt government steered by Dragnea’s personal interests. He has since softened his stance and said he expects the presidency to go ahead according to plan, not before Finnish officials being put on the spot whether they believe Finland should take over the presidency ahead of schedule (Finland’s term is scheduled between 1 July and 31 December 2019.)
With two major elections for Romanians to be held in 2019 - the European Parliament elections in May, and the Romanian presidential elections in November or December - expect a tumultuous presidency defined by political instability at home and nationalist tendencies.
Watch this space!