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Why Romania is clashing with Brussels at the worst possible time

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For the first time since its accession in 2007, Romania is holding the rotating presidency of the European Union for the first half of 2019. It will set the agenda of the European Council and has the chance to exercise leadership on behalf of the 27 members of the bloc.

But the timing could not be worse. The Romanian government has been at war with itself for several years and, like other nations in the region, has been indulging in some rather “un-European” behaviour. Various European institutions have severely criticised national leaders, even as they take on this key role.

Romania’s current political problems began as soon as the results of the 2016 national elections came in. The vote delivered a centre-left coalition government which has proved deeply unstable. The country has had four different prime ministers in the past two years alone. This instability is primarily due to internal fights within the Social Democrats (PSD) – the senior partner in the coalition. At the beginning of 2018, the government of Mihai Tudose was toppled by a vote of no confidence launched, in a highly unusual move, from within his own party. He was replaced by current prime minister Viorica Dăncilă.

The deeper conflict remains unresolved. It stems from a power struggle at the top of the party involving its controversial leader, Liviu Dragnea, who cannot become prime minister himself because of a criminal conviction for corruption. Dragnea has attempted to rule by proxy but successive lieutenants have refused to follow orders once in office. However, he has had more success with Dăncilă as prime minister. Hopes that Romania’s first woman leader would act as a progressive force have been thwarted. Most people already see her as little more than Dragnea’s puppet.

Under her leadership, the government is attempting to introduce laws to relax the definition of corruption and enable pardons for politicians convicted of corruption. She has also criticised Romania’s national anti-corruption directorate for being “politically motivated” and dismissed the anti-corruption chief prosecutor, Laura Kovesi, who she has accused of pursuing a “political witch hunt”.

Since starting her position in 2013, Kovesi and her directorate have been fighting high-level corruption. Several former members of parliament, ministers and one former prime minister have already been indicted. The current leaders of the PSD perhaps worried that this very effective chief prosecutor was coming close to investigating their own activities.

Clashing with Brussels

The government has attempted to reform the judicial system and put it under tighter political control. It has also sought to restrict funding for NGOs. None of this has escaped the attention of Brussels. In October, the European parliament passed a resolution expressing “deep concern” about the judicial reforms and calling for an investigation into the “violent and disproportionate police response to public protests” in the summer.

And in November, Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, said: “I regret that Romania has not only stalled its reform process, but also reopened and backtracked on issues where progress was made over the past ten years”. He was referring to the conclusions of the European Commission’s annual report on the administration of justice in Romania, which highlighted the rollback on the rule of law and restrictions to the freedom of the media.

Dragnea, for his part, has lashed out at the “lies” coming from the west about his party. His social democrat colleague, Mihai Fifor, has complained that Romania is treated like a “second rate nation” by some EU officials.

This was in response to comments made by Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, just days before Romania took on the EU presidency, suggesting he had doubts about whether it was fit for the role. Seeking to strike a more conciliatory tone, EU council president Donald Tusk tweeted that he was “confident” Romania could deliver.

The EU is perhaps seeking to compensate for its slow response to the increasing authoritarianism of Viktor Orban’s administration in Hungary by taking a more proactive approach with Romania. Having been too lenient early on, the EU has struggled to manage Orban’s flagrant disregard for the rule of law and freedom of expression. It is essential for the integrity of the EU, especially as Brexit approaches, to uphold its fundamental values for the sake of internal unity and cohesion.

Unrest at home

In Romania, too, the government’s decisions have provoked consternation and sparked numerous protests. In the past two years, at least a million citizens have taken to the streets in a wave of anti-corruption demonstrations that are continuing even as Romania begins its European leadership mandate. As a sign of the deep political divide in the country, the president, Klaus Iohannis, a representative of the opposition, has stated that Romania isn’t fit to lead the European Union. He has called the current government “an accident of Romanian democracy”.

Romania has benefited immensely from its membership in the European Union. In the ten years since accession, the EU has channelled some €27 billion into Romanian infrastructure, improving people’s quality of life and making Romania a more attractive place for foreign investment. Romania has also seen a spectacular increase in its GDP per capita.

Between 2007 and 2017, it went from 35% of the EU average to 55%. It is in line for greater reward if it stays on course, too, with promises that it can join the Schengen borderless area, enabling citizens to travel around the region without passport checks, making it easier for them to find short-term work opportunities abroad.

Romania’s presidency of the EU is the perfect moment for the government to leave aside its short-term, self-preserving priorities and think about the longer perspective. The next six months are an opportunity to strengthen Romania’s position in the union, if it is willing to take it.

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