So, if it’s early 2019, it must be Romania. Under the terms of the EU membership agreement, every member state gets to hold the rotating presidency of the European Council for what is normally a six-month period — and the government in Vienna passed the baton to Bucharest on New Year’s Day.
For the record, the European Council is the committee of the heads of state of each of the current 28 members of the EU that effectively oversees the working of the European Commission — the cabinet-like body that deals with the day-to-day running of the EU. The nation that holds the rotating presidency gets to chair the meetings and is also responsible for driving the work forward — effectively setting the political agenda for the other members.
Naturally, chairing the council is highly important — more so given that the next six months will be critical.
One way or another, the United Kingdom will formally withdraw from the EU on March 29, and there are direct elections to be held for the European Parliament in Strasbourg across all 27 remaining EU states on May 23.
By then too, both France and Germany will be proposing reforms for the political and social bloc, but with French President Emmanuel Macron chastened by recent turmoil and protests by the yellow jackets, and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel beginning the process of withdrawing from political leadership, it’s difficult to say now just how deep and wide those reforms will be now — or indeed what appetite remains in the other nations for a navel-gazing debate on EU policies, structures and reforms.
The very fact that the rotating presidency has now come Bucharest’s way isn’t exactly hitting a harmonious chord in Brussels right now either.
Just before Christmas, Romania’s Social Democrat-led government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in parliament from opposition parties angry at its moves to overhaul legislation that deals with the way chief prosecutors and judges are appointed. Tampering with those laws is seen as a way of shutting down investigations into corruption and backhanders — and Brussels is also concerned at the moves.
Since the government came to power in early 2017 following a general election in December 2016, those concerns have deepened, and critics point to Bucharest following in the trends set by judicial forms in Poland and Hungary that have also raised alarm bells over the principle of judicial independence. It’s not just the European Commission that’s concerned — so too are the US State Department and thousands of magistrates across Romania, and the changes have led to the largest and most wide-scale street protests in decades.
Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea, who has a suspended jail sentence in a vote-rigging case and has appealed a separate conviction for abuse of office, has been pushing Prime Minister Viorica Dancila’s government for further changes, including an emergency decree that would grant prison pardons and amnesty.
The centrist opposition, which pushed for the no confidence vote, said the ruling party and its junior coalition partner ALDE were a threat to the rule of law and economic stability in one of the EU’s most corrupt states.
In November, the EU commission pointedly accused Bucharest of seeking to turn the clock back on years of democratic reforms, and said it was backtracking on progress made since joining the EU in 2007. The European parliament passed a resolution voicing “deep concerns” at legislation that has the potential to weaken the rule of law. MEPs also condemned “the violent and disproportionate intervention by police” in Bucharest in August. Then, security forces used tear gas, baton rounds and water cannons to disperse anti-corruption demonstrators. The street protests were sparked by the firing in July of the head of the national anti-corruption directorate. She was sacked after five years in the job overseeing a series of convictions against ministers and mayors that exposed widespread corruption.
Dragnea and his cronies are having none of it, and point to a conspiracy of a parallel state that includes the police, the judiciary, prosecutors, agitators and the EU itself in trying to topple Dancila’s coalition government.
Clashes over the rule of law have heightened political infighting. Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s president, wryly noted in late November that his country was not ready to take over the rotating presidency, saying there was zero chance “of a good government … or proper involvement in European affairs.” Ouch.
Trouble is, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, agrees. While most were getting ready for the New Year celebrations, Juncker was making headlines in news outlets that were still listening over the holiday period that “Romania has not fully understood what it means to preside over EU countries”, adding that he had doubts about whether Bucharest can be an honest broker in shepherding bills through the European Council. Then he fired this not-subtle broadside: “Thoughtful acting also requires a willingness to listen to others and the firm will to put one’s own concerns at the end of the queue.”
If there is any good news it comes from the fact that the issue of UK’s departure — the key issue in the coming months — is being handled by the commission and not the council that Romania will chair. And those European parliament elections towards the end of May will effectively end the formalities of Romania’s rotating presidency, given that the new parliament will effectively start a new cycle when it gathers for the first time.
As much as it can, all the institutional apparatus that together makes up the EU bureaucracy and oversight, is firmly focused on Romania.