As Romania formally launched its six-month-long presidency of the EU, its foreign affairs chief insisted that the country was prepared to helm the Council ship for the very first time.
During a kick-off press briefing in Bucharest on Thursday (10 January), Foreign Minister Teodor Meleșcanu reiterated that Romania is ready for its maiden presidency and insisted that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker shares that view, despite Juncker’s recent comments to the contrary.
Juncker said in a recent interview with German media that the Bucharest government “has not fully understood what it means to chair the EU countries”.
Meleșcanu told reporters that he was not aware of those comments but added that in all his discussions with the Commission president, the conclusion was that Romania is “well-prepared”.
Juncker indeed acknowledged in his interview that Romania is technically up to the job but his concerns were more aimed at the political situation in the Eastern European nation.
“A united front is needed at home in order to promote the unity of Europe during the presidency of the Council,” the Luxembourger told Welt am Sonntag, hinting at the growing political unrest in Romania, which joined the EU in 2007 but remains under a monitoring regime by Brussels.
There is a clear political divide in Bucharest, particularly between the current prime minister, Viorica Dăncilă, and head of state President Klaus Iohannis, who has also cast doubt on his own country’s preparedness.
Romania is still subject to an annual review of its rule of law situation by the Commission and the most recent edition concluded that Bucharest had actually backtracked on its efforts.
Iohannis said in November, after the latest report was published, that it showed “Romania has gone back in time to before its EU accession”.
The current government has embarked on a number of judicial reforms, one of which is intended to grant amnesty to politicians who have been hit with corruption charges, drawing at times thousands of protesters onto the streets of Romania’s cities.
Social Democrat Party leader Liviu Dragnea is currently banned from holding the office of prime minister due to a conviction handed down in June last year.
In December, Dragnea filed a legal challenge with the European Court of Justice about a report by the EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, which alleges that €20 million in EU funds has been misappropriated.
Asked if this was a wise move right at the start of Romania’s presidency stint, Meleșcanu said that every citizen is innocent until proven guilty and denied that he has spoken to the party leader about the case.
Dragnea will not attend the presidency opening ceremony and is reportedly on holiday, while Iohannis only confirmed his attendance at the festivities last minute.
Whose job is it anyway?
The president and prime minister were also involved in a separate dispute during the first week of Romania’s presidency, in which Dăncilă said that going to EU Council meetings is part of her job, not the president’s.
However, foreign affairs chief Meleșcanu contradicted her when asked by Romanian media about the issue, explaining that two constitutional court rulings mean that it is indeed part of Iohannis’ duties. Indeed, Iohannis has been representing Romania at EU summits. Most of the other countries, except France, Lithuania and Cyprus, are represented by the Prime Ministers.
Dăncilă said Romania’s situation was “atypical”, pointing to the presidency handover ceremony with Austria, where it was Austria’s prime minister, Sebastian Kurz, who performed the ceremony, rather than President Alexander Van der Bellen.
Agenda finer points
Romania’s presidency has been launched under the slogan of “Cohesion, a common European value”.
Asked if the presidency will support a proposal to link EU funding to rule of law adherence, Meleșcanu said it is “an idea floating in the air” and added that there will need to be more “concrete elements” about what it would entail.
His comments are more toned down that his first reaction in February 2018, when he said such linking “would constitute a gross violation of the EU’s fundamental principles”. Bulgaria and Poland have also voiced their concerns with the proposed mechanism.
The idea, first mooted in early 2018, could mean that countries under rule of law procedure, currently Poland and Hungary, and in the future possibly Romania or Malta, would see their EU payments frozen.