Friends or Foes? Romania and the Council Presidency

maandag 25 februari 2019, 13:00, analyse van dr. Sergiu Gherghina

Sinds de toetreding in 2007 is de zichtbaarheid van Roemenië in de Europese Unie altijd gepaard gegaan met enthousiasme. Zo ook de benoeming van het land tot voorzitter van de Raad. De afgelopen twee jaar heeft de regerende partij zich echter steeds kritischer opgesteld tegenover de EU. Ook de EU heeft Roemenië bekritiseerd voor de afglijdende rechtsstaat in het land. Roemenië en de EU: vrienden of vijanden?

Since its accession in 2007, Romania has enjoyed every opportunity that could boost its visibility in the European Union (EU). There was broad domestic media coverage when two important cities were selected as European Capital of Culture (Sibiu in 2007) and European Youth Capital (Cluj-Napoca in 2015). These cities are strongly connected with the high-level politicians at national level: the current country president was the mayor of Sibiu between 2000 and 2014, while one of the former prime-ministers is the current mayor of Cluj-Napoca since 2012. Considerable attention has been paid also when Romanian politicians were appointed important Commissioner positions, e.g. Agriculture or Regional Policy. The apogee of visibility so far has been reached in 2019 when the country holds the Council Presidency for the first six months.

This presidency comes at an important moment for the EU-related debate at the level of political elites in the country. The attitudes of some politicians towards the EU have changed in the last half a decade, with personal interests as a driving force. Over the last two years the ruling Social Democratic Party and its junior government coalition partner delivered an increasingly Eurosceptic discourse. This would have been difficult to imagine more than a decade ago when the consensus among the political elites was an important driver for accession. Since then, the European criticism oriented against the initiators of the 2012 attempts to politicize key state institutions and remove the country president from office was the first sparkle of conflict. Things got much worse more recently. The EU criticism oriented against the disrespect for the rule of law in Romania intensified after the 2016 general elections. The newly formed government coalition sought to pass amendments to the Laws on Justice, diminished the magistrates’ independence and endangered the fight against corruption.

The most recent report assessing the progress made by Romania under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, released in November 2018, recommended to suspend the justice laws.

The social democrats, the main actors in the 2012 and post-2016 events, pursue narrow interest in passing the justice laws. The latter currently deny politicians with prosecutions to hold high official positions. The social democrat party president is convicted and cannot become prime-minister or run for country president. He has been the puppeteer for all three governments appointed after the 2016 elections but cannot enjoy the recognition of an official position. The attempts made to pass an amnesty for prosecution ignited public protests in the country and triggered reactions from high EU officials on a continuous basis. The adoption of such laws would undermine, according to the European Commission’s vice-president, the fight against corruption. The Council Presidency brings the situation to a temporary halt. Since January 2019, the government refrains from delivering anti-EU messages and does no longer push for amendments to the justice laws. They are in the spotlight and makes little sense to draw supplementary attention to them.

The presidency could also influence the campaign for the European elections. In terms of competitors, new anti-EU system will not emerge in this period. Romania is one of the few countries where right-wing populists did not gain any seats in the European 2014 elections; and the situation will not change this year. In terms of campaign content, political parties are discouraged by the current status of the country to rely on an anti-EU strategy. The opposition parties are quite apathetic and lack a clear strategy to counterbalance the government actions. They are pro-European, but they have weak voices. However, this could change if they use the opportunities provided throughout the six months of presidency to build a strong case in their support.

The Romanian public was and continues to be a strong supporter of the EU project. the 2018 Eurobarometer data reveal that approximately 55% of the Romanians consider that the EU membership is a positive thing. Almost 70% of the citizens, according to the same source, consider that the country benefited from membership. Their positive image about the European Parliament is well above the European average (43% compared to 32%). In the case of a referendum regarding the exit from the EU, two thirds of the Romanian – the same as the European average – would vote against and only 15% in favour. All these percentages indicate that the public opinion is not heavily influenced by the domestic political discourse against the EU.

Romania took charge of the rotating presidency amid fears that the government could steer away the country from democratic consolidation. This coincided with months of domestic turmoil after peaceful anti-corruption protesters in August 2018 were dispersed by police with violence, including water cannons and teargas. The presidency is a challenge for the Romanian government that has to shift focus from domestic issues to organizing EU’s daily business. Maybe not as a coincidence, during the Romanian presidency the former chief prosecutor of Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate is among the top candidates in the process to select the chief prosecutor of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. It is the same person that the current Romanian government struggled to remove from office.

Sergiu Gherghina is professor vergelijkende politiek aan de Universiteit van Glasgow.