Romania’s first EU presidency: A partial success with missed opportunities

Romania has concluded its first ever presidency in the Council of the European Union. While expectations from EU leaders were low due to the Romanian government’s anti-European discourse, the country managed to deliver some results during a period when the EU itself was in limbo in anticipation of the European parliamentary elections.

The clouds were already gathering when Romania assumed the EU’s rotating presidency at the beginning of 2019. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that Romania was not fit to lead the council, with even Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s president, himself suggesting that the country might not be ready. After such comments, it was fair to assume that Romania was one of the least prepared member states to set the European agenda for six months.

Major controversies

The EU presidency is an excellent opportunity for every member state to showcase itself. For Romania’s ruling Social Democratic (PSD) and ALDE parties, both of which had previously taken an increasingly anti-European turn, this opportunity unsurprisingly turned into unwanted spotlight.

Almost the whole of the presidency period was overshadowed by the PSD-led government’s plans to introduce a change in Romania’s penal code that would essentially serve as a legal tool to overturn rulings in corruption cases and grant convicted politicians amnesty.

This crackdown on the rule of law resulted in an all-time low in relations with not just Brussels, but other partners. “We are deeply concerned about the integrity of Romania’s justice system, which has been buffeted by unpredictable modifications that do not further Romania’s efforts to consolidate judicial progress,” the embassies of Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the US said in a joint statement on April 4, with the European Commission also threatening Article 7 procedures, something that would have been an unprecedented step taken against a country holding the EU presidency. Despite the criticism, pro-government MPs approved the bill, later vetoed by the country’s constitutional court.

Another major controversy emerged when Romania’s close-to-government chief prosecutor, Adina Florea, started an investigation against commission vice president Frans Timmermans and commissioner for justice Vera Jourova, claiming that the two made false claims in an annual EU report on the state of the Romanian judiciary back in 2018.

The most striking blow, however, came when the Romanian government openly lobbied against the candidacy of Laura Codruta-Kövesi, the country’s former chief anti-corruption prosecutor for the presidency of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.

In late March, the Romanian authorities indicted Ms Kövesi in a corruption-related probe, widely seen as a move to kill her candidacy. “Probably some people are in such despair that I might get this job that I’m not allowed to speak to the media anymore,” she told reporters.

Ms Kövesi is now the sole candidate for the position.

Concerns over the rule of law in Romania led to the Party of European Socialists to freeze relations with the PSD in April, while its coalition partner, ALDE, was ousted from its European parliamentary group.

All these setbacks contributed to the ruling party’s defeat in the EU elections on May 26. The party scored below 25 per cent of the vote, while ALDE failed to receive enough votes to get into the EU parliament. The PSD suffered another blow when Romania’s Supreme Court upheld a verdict on Liviu Dragnea, the government’s de facto leader, sentencing him to prison for providing fake jobs to party workers.

The election defeat and Mr Dragnea’s disappearance from frontline politics pushed the ruling party to soften its anti-European rhetoric, which was followed by a softening stance on Romania and its presidency from EU leaders.

“I would like to thank President Iohannis and his entire team for an energetic and successful presidency,” said European Council President Donald Tusk at the end of the presidency, while commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said this was “Romania’s first presidency and that is why the results are remarkable.”

A legislative success

Regardless of all the controversies, Romania’s steering of the EU’s complicated legislative process proved to be successful. “The greatest achievement of the Romanian presidency of the council was the fact that it managed to contribute to the closing of 100 legislative files in a very short time,” Paul Ivan, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre told Emerging Europe. In quantitative terms, the legislative achievement outnumbers any EU presidency.

Although they were not Romanian initiatives, the presidency contributed to such pioneer projects of European integration as the European Defence Fund, that will support EU-wide innovation in the defence sector, or the European Labour Authority, an important step taken towards strengthening the EU’s much-debated social pillar.

Much of the EU legislation approved by the council during the January-June period will be good for business. “The amendment to the EU Gas Directive has the potential to boost competition on the EU gas market. The agreement on the establishment of the new Digital Europe financing programme for 2021-2027 is important as it will support the roll-out of key digital technologies such as artificial intelligence,” Mr Ivan added.

“Negotiations of the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF; the EU’s seven-year budget) have been taken forward dutifully as well, much to the relief of the Finnish [EU presidency],” sources from the Socialists and Democrats Group of which the PSD is a member, told us. Cohesion and convergence were the forefront goals of the presidency, although the MFF is yet to be agreed upon.

“The biggest success of the Romanian presidency was the EU Summit organised in Sibiu by the Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis. The EU leaders signed the Sibiu Declaration and agreed on the main priorities of the EU for the years to come. I can say that after the Sibiu Summit the EU came out stronger and more united,” Siegfried Mureșan, a Romanian MEP and spokesperson for the European People’s Party told us. According to him, the success of the presidency was “mostly because of the hard work and efforts of Romanian diplomats and civil servants.”

Missed opportunities, but not because of Romania

Expectations were high for the presidency to deliver on the Eastern Partnership (EaP), the EU’s largest neighbourhood policy initiative, particularly because of Romania’s connections to Moldova. “The Romanian presidency coincided with the 10-year anniversary of the partnership [in May], prompting hopes that the European aspirations of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine could be recognised. However, the anniversary summit provided disappointment,” non-governmental Romanian sources familiar with the matter told us. A landmark summit ended without a joint declaration due to Azerbaijan’s opposition over a bilateral dispute with Armenia in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. With no joint statement for the long term, Georgia and Ukraine both expressed disappointment that their pro-European aspirations were not acknowledged. “The past months showed little promise in the relationship with self-declared pro-European partners,” our source continued, adding that overall, the presidency itself did send positive signals to Eastern neighbours.

Similar expectations were directed at the presidency’s declared goal to advance the European integration of the Western Balkans. While Mr Mureșan said the presidency itself had shown a strong commitment towards the matter, the EU heads of state and government on June 18 postponed a decision on starting accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. “We even saw a setback in the enlargement file, but this lack of results is not due to the rotating presidency. There is little appetite inside the EU [the European Council] at this moment to further enlarge the Union,” Mr Ivan added.

Sources from the S&D Group said that the presidency had also managed to build a coalition on climate change, achieving “important progress on mammoth packages such as CO2 emissions”, even though the European Council was not able to agree on the EU’s climate action strategy for 2050 because of objections from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

“The EU’s past six months were defined by events beyond Romania’s control,” he continued, pointing to the EU elections and Brexit.

Schengen was not an option

“I would have appreciated seeing some progress on Romania’s accession to the Schengen Zone as it is well-known that Romania has met the technical criteria for joining the area since 2011,” Mr Mureșan added, pointing to the top of the country’s wishlist on the EU agenda.

Being the moderator of EU-wide talks in the council, Romania could have taken – but did not – a step forward with its own initiative to joining Schengen. However, it was not the presidency where progress would have been needed to achieve this goal, but the Romanian government and its activities.

“Romania will be admitted when you will comply with the rule of law and democracy. For now, you are not going in the right direction,” Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, said after the Sibiu Summit, suggesting that the accession process still has a long way to go.