In a wide-ranging interview, Victor Negrescu, the Romanian Minister Delegate for European Affairs, presents the priorities of the upcoming Romanian Presidency (1 January-30 June 2019), during which the European elections will be held, as well as the first post-Brexit EU summit.
Victor Negrescu is a former MEP from the S&D group.
He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.
Last time we met in Bucharest in December, you said that Romania could become the first country to organise a debate in the spirit of the democratic conventions proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron in his Sorbonne speech. What has been done in the meantime?
We have done a lot of things. In February, we launched a debate regarding the upcoming [Romanian] presidency of the Council of the EU, organising dozens of meetings to define our priorities for the presidency, we organised working groups and, in the meantime, we launched the formal consultation presented by the French president, the citizens’ consultation. A couple of events have already been organised and we are going to do things a bit differently, we will organise meetings in all the regions of Romania, but also in rural areas, in plants, in small towns, because we want to use this process to get as much information as possible from people about what they expect to happen at a European level. We noticed during conversations we had with citizens that Romanians are rather pro-European, while in the same time they request Europe to do more. Surprisingly, we also found out that Romanians demand from the EU to do more in terms of security. It is surprising for us because Romania did not face any security problems until now. We also noticed that they want the EU to intervene and promote policies they can receive, and promote mechanisms and actions they can have access to of course. In Romania, Erasmus is rather popular, as well as subsidies for formers, because those measures are known and easily accessible.
In Romania the political situation is tense. The president of the opposition party PNL Ludovic Orban has accused the government of being anti-European because it is conducting an assault against the judiciary. On the other hand, the European elections are coinciding with the Romanian presidency. How are you going to convince your critics that, by reaching to the citizens, especially farmers and so on, you are not campaigning for the European elections?
We are reaching to all citizens, all stakeholders and all political parties actually.
Since the beginning, one year ago, when I became a minister, I supported this idea of having a consensus around the presidency and the European perspective of Romania. A few weeks ago, I was in the Romanian Parliament and I presented our priorities to the European Affairs committee and we had unanimity, all political parties supported our priorities. It means that people and political figures endorse the transparency we used to prepare the presidency.
Everyone understands that consultations, debates, discussions are related to the message Romania has for the EU, to their European project. Moreover, the organiser of the public consultations is the European Institute of Romania, which is recognised for having a balanced approach, which has involved everyone in its process and the head of this institution is someone who held this office for a long time already, working with many governments in the past.
So you think you can have a political truce, for the presidency and for the elections?
Elections are elections, we already saw countries holding the presidency while having national or local elections and there have been presidencies without having a government in place.
What’s key for us is that this presidency does not belong to a minister, to a government; it belongs to the Romanian people and [is about] what we can do as a country at a European level in order to build consensus. We focus on that. We understand that there is an important technical dimension in handling a presidency. We believe that the 1,500 experts that will work for the presidency are key in this regard. I think they will be our strongest point, showing that the presidency is about administrative capacities.
Basically, we are using this presidency as a key moment to increase our capacities to express ourselves at a European level. Romania understands it will have bigger responsibilities in the EU, especially after Brexit, because Romania’s weight in the decision-making process will increase and also because we have a message. Our pro-European population is the core of our message for Europe, we have to deliver it, and our civil servants will be able to do that in a practical way.
Can you remind us the priorities of the Romanian presidency? You previously mentioned citizens and values. At the same time, the presidency marks the end of the Juncker Commission, and the Sibiu summit is seen a bit like the political legacy of Jean-Claude Juncker. So how do you see these challenges?
Citizens will be at the centre of our presidency, we want to speak about policies that have a direct impact on them and bring benefits for them. Around citizens, we can build consensus. When we discuss with governments in the EU, everyone acknowledges that we are accountable in front of our citizens, so consensus and building the cohesion of the European family are key. Actually our slogan revolves around the issue of cohesion, the unity of the European family, respecting each other, and working together, this is key for us. We will also talk about policies that improve people’s lives, and push for economic, social and territorial convergence. This is also part of our presidency’s message.
We have four pillars. The first is Europe of convergence, and growth: we believe we are an example at a European level; last year we had one of the highest levels of economic growth, not only in Europe, but at a global level.
We are going to speak about policies that bring growth, we are going to speak about cohesion policy, competitivity and competition and connectivity: digital connectivity but also connectivity in terms of infrastructure. We will make proposals on these pillars, to reshape and revive macro regions, especially for us reviving the Danube strategy. It is key to understand the added value that macro regions bring to the EU and use them in a constructive and positive way. At the end of this year, the Commission will come up with a regulation regarding macro regions and we want to be actively involved in this process.
The second pillar is related to security in Europe, working together in protecting borders and reforming Schengen, hopefully with Romania in the Schengen area.
The third pillar is acting at a global level, so we will continue the work that has already been launched regarding the Western Balkans’ European profile. We will also speak about the Eastern Partnership. Next year, we will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Eastern Partnership, so we will speak about Georgia, Ukraine, but also a lot about the Republic of Moldova, supporting hopefully a pro-European government that is going to be elected by the Moldovan people this autumn during the national elections. We expect to do a couple of events there if we have a pro-European partner in place.
The fourth pillar is about a Europe of common values. Having a dialogue, a debate between member states on that is absolutely necessary. Here we want to revive something that is mentioned in the European treaties, it is called human dignity. It is mentioned in the chapter of values. We noticed that for Romanian citizens, but also for other people I met across Europe during consultations, it is a very important concept, so we have to define it and give substance to it. I think the core translation of human dignity is not leaving anyone behind – citizens or regions. It means supporting citizens in their daily lives, but also giving them access to common opportunities and being present on the ground.
So for all these pillars and objectives we may have, we have the files. Currently, we have around 170 legislative files on the table of the European institutions and a few dozen non-legislative ones. We will see what the Austrian presidency will do, but Romania will have to deal with a lot of them and maybe others that will appear in the meantime. It will have to be dealt with in the first month of our presidency, before we start preparing for the European elections and before the Parliament starts focusing on that.
It is our first presidency and we want to show that we have prepared wisely. Next year, it will be 12 years since our integration in the EU, and we want to show that we understand what belonging to the European family means and how we can play a positive and active role. There will be key moments during our presidency: Brexit, the European elections, the formation of the new European Commission, the summit in Sibiu. Another key moment that people tend to forget: in June next year in the Council, we are going to decide the strategic agenda of the leaders for the upcoming five years and this document is key for Europe’s future.
You mentioned Schengen. There will be an EU summit on 28-29 June, and it is not really clear if EU leaders will agree on how to deal with migration, whether it will be at EU level or intergovernmental cooperation, which means bad news for Schengen. Do you think your ambition to join Schengen for the Presidency is a bit unrealistic?
I am not speaking about being realistic or not, but about rights. Romania and Bulgaria have complied for several years with the rules regarding the Schengen area and we complied with all the requirements. If we speak about the Union of law, rules and rights, it also means respecting these rights that our countries have. Romania understands that we have to wait for Schengen to be reformed before enlarging it. But this is a different issue from migration. We hope that we will find a solution for the reform of the Schengen area in the near future, and once we find that, we see no reason not to take the next step. This is our message. Regarding migration and the reform of the Dublin system, this is another issue that will be discussed by the EU leaders in June. We need a solution that is acceptable for everyone, that lasts and that brings positive results.
How about the internal situation of Romania? It is obvious that the opposition considers there is an ongoing crackdown on the independence of the judiciary. Romania is still under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. Shouldn’t your country get rid of this mechanism 11 years after its EU accession?
Romania has committed in complying with the 12 recommendations mentioned in the CVM mechanism. For 11 years, the country has worked actively with the European Commission on everything related to justice and we are still committed in doing so. Missions are on the ground, we have discussions, my colleague the minister for justice is discussing with the commissioner in charge with this topic, so Romania remains an active and loyal partner of the Commission.
The last report has showed an improvement on many of these requirements, and of course, among the recommendations was also this idea of having a balanced system, that complies with the constitutional court’s decisions and the relevant directives. Romania, for instance, is close to entering an infringement procedure for not implementing the presumption of innocence directive, which has to be implemented because it is a European requirement. We are working with the Commission, everything is fully transparent, the discussions regarding any reform are webstreamed, political parties all attend the discussions, structures representing the judiciary body are present at the debate. It is a discussion, there may be different perspectives, but what is important is that the constitutional framework is fully respected.
Any law being voted in Parliament after a debate goes to the president; he can send it to the evaluation of the constitutional court, it can go up to the Venice committee, which can come up with observations or recommendations. Everything complies with the rules in place and with the Romanian constitution; it needs to be underlined every time we speak about this topic. Beyond that, it is political discussions and it is normal they take place, we are a democracy, and it is important that different people express different views.
Romania and Bulgaria are often mentioned together, although there are big differences between the two countries and not so much contact between them, but there is one big similarity. Both countries have lost a lot of their population and their people go and live abroad. Last December, you expressed the ambition to reach out to the diaspora to consult them on what the priorities of the presidency should be and make those people feel closer to their country of origin. What have you done in the meantime?
First, on our website for the preparation of the presidency, we have a special corner designed for Romanians who live abroad. They can come up with their suggestions; we received a few hundred of them. In almost all of my visits abroad I try to meet with Romanians living there, with the diaspora, discussing the presidency and how they can be involved.
In a couple of days, we are going to launch a platform for Romanians living abroad, especially associations of Romanians, to come up with proposals during our presidency. We want an open format. We have the formal meetings here but also we want the civil society from the diaspora to come up with proposals, to try to organise meetings across Europe with the support of our embassies. It is important for them to feel part of this process. When speaking about the presidency, it is another way of presenting Romania through a different angle, and I think it can be an interesting element and an added value to our message, trying to better present our country.
I am one of those Romanians who lived for many years abroad, so I feel like I am part of this diaspora, I feel responsible to involve them. I am one of the few members of the government with such an experience and I hope this will convince them to have the confidence to come back and do things back home because we need their know-how, we need their experience, and hopefully the presidency will be a moment that will prove that there are opportunities in Romania for them. We can look at recent statistics: According to the latest Barometer survey published by the European Commission, Romania was the second ranked country in terms of job creation in Europe in the first part of the year. A lot of things are improving, people just have to trust the process and trust that they can come back home and succeed.