(From L to R) Romania's Prime Minister Viorica Dancila, Bulgaria's Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attend a joint press conference during the Quadrilateral Balkan Summit in Belgrade on December 22, 2018. The four-party co-operation that began in October 2017 in Varna, establishes the Balkan countries' co-operation on major regional issues. Image Credit: AFP

Bucharest: Romania takes over the EU's rotating presidency on Tuesday at a tumultuous time for the bloc and just days after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker voiced doubts about the country's ability to do the job.

Brussels is already at loggerheads with the increasingly populist government in Bucharest on multiple fronts and Juncker's comments highlight some of the strains.

Romania will be in charge for the next six months as the European Union faces a series of key tests - Brexit, parliamentary elections in which eurosceptics will vie for increased influence, and wrangling over the next budget.

Romania, which takes the presidency for the first time as it succeeds Austria, has been one of the EU's most consistently europhile member states since it joined in 2007.

But its left-wing government has recently begun to adopt the sort of nationalist rhetoric expounded by nearby Hungary and Poland.

All three are embroiled in disputes with the EU over controversial reforms that critics say undermine the rule of law.

Liviu Dragnea, head of the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) and widely seen as Romania's most powerful man, has slammed the EU as "unfair", claiming Brussels is seeking to deny Bucharest the "right to hold its own opinions".

Opportunistic not ideological 

In remarks to Die Welt on December 29, Juncker said that even if Romania was "technically well prepared" for the presidency, the "Bucharest government has not fully understood what it means to preside over the countries of the EU."

The EU presidency "requires a willingness to listen to others and a willingness to put one's own concerns in the background. I have some doubts about this," Juncker said.

One of the main reasons for the cooling of relations between Bucharest and Brussels is the PSD's planned overhaul of Romania's judiciary, which the government says is aimed at clamping down on "abuses" by judges and magistrates.

But the European Commission wants the reforms scrapped, saying they undermine the fight against corruption in one of the EU's most graft-prone states.

EU officials "have the feeling, perhaps justifiably, that these reforms are for the benefit of Dragnea," said political scientist Andrei Taranu.

The government has proposed a criminal amnesty for politicians including Dragnea, who was given a suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud in 2016 and is being investigated in two other criminal cases.

In this context, Dragnea's switch to a more populist tone could be more opportunistic than ideological, Taranu said.

"He is copying the illiberal rhetoric of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban without understanding the concepts involved," Taranu said.

There are no signs that the government will put its plans on hold during its EU presidency.

The amnesty decree is expected to be issued soon, with a European source warning that such a step would cross a "red line".

If the decree goes ahead, Romania would be distracted from pan-European problems and instead have to devote energy to defending itself to its partners, the same source said, adding that the country "already suffers from a lack of credibility".

Moreover, Romania may find it difficult to speak with a united voice, given the tug-of-war between the government of Viorica Dancila - the third PSD prime minister since 2016 - and centre-right President Klaus Iohannis.

Iohannis, a keen pro-European who has frequently clashed with the government, represents Romania on the European Council.

Polarised society 

The PSD won a comfortable election victory in 2016, but quickly sparked the country's biggest wave of protests since the collapse of communism with an attempt to water down anti-corruption laws.

Demonstrations have continued in the capital Bucharest but the PSD still enjoys solid support in poorer and more rural parts of the country, which have benefited from recent rises in wages and benefits.

Political analyst Radu Alexandru describes Romanian society as "very polarised and divided".

As well as being one of the EU's poorest countries, Romania also suffers from huge inequality.

EU membership has brought some tangible benefits to poorer regions of the country.

Romania has received 32 billion euros ($36 billion) in EU cohesion funds, part of which went to supplying running water to 40 percent of rural homes - up from just one percent at the fall of communism in 1989.

But as sociologist Iulian Stanescu of the ICCV research institute points out, "EU membership can't solve everything".

Despite the benefits of being in the bloc and strong economic growth, Romania continues to suffer from chronic problems, including emigration.

"All around me I only see sad people and high-school students who want to leave," says 60-year-old electrician Gica Bobe, a resident of Turnu Magurele, a town in Romania's poor south.


Five things to know about Romania

Bucharest: Romania, which takes over the EU's rotating presidency on Tuesday for the first time since it joined the bloc in 2007, is a former communist country with a population of 20 million.

It is also known as a breeding ground for filmmakers, hackers and a travel destination prized by Prince Charles.

Diaspora, past and present

Since the fall of communism at the end of 1989, around four million Romanians have left the country.

While the exodus has emptied villages and created shortages of skilled labour, it has also generated large transfers of money to the families left behind - $4.3 billion (Dh15.7 billion) or 2 per cent of gross domestic product in 2017.

The phenomenon is not new. Many intellectuals left Romania before the Second World War and made a name for themselves in Europe's arts world - from playwright Eugene Ionesco and sculptor Constantin Brancusi to composer Georges Enesco and poet Paul Celan.

Francesco Illy, who invented the espresso machine, and Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan on the silver screen, are both from Timisoara, a town in the west of the country that was formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Silicon Valley or Hackerville?

Romania's IT sector is booming to such an extent that experts see it as the future "Silicon Valley" of Eastern Europe.

A number of homegrown companies, including Bitdefender or UiPath, have been able to make their mark internationally, while thousands of young IT workers are recruited every year by the sector giants.

At the same time, Romania is regarded as a nest of cyber crime: Ramnicu Valcea - a sleepy town in the south which was home to a number of hackers arrested in recent years - has been nicknamed "Hackerville" by foreign media.

Dracula and Prince Charles

Transylvania, a picturesque region in the centre of the country, is best known for being the home of Dracula, made famous in 1897 by Irish writer Bram Stoker taking inspiration for his novel from the 15th-century prince known as Vlad the Impaler.

The region is also prized as a travel destination by Britain's Prince Charles, who bought two traditional houses and set up a heritage foundation there. Hardly surprising, given that Charles himself has said that he was a descendant of "Count Dracula" and has said that Transylvania was "in my blood".

One country, many ethnicities

A crossroads of different cultures - Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Greek and Russian - Romania officially recognises its minority groups and 18 of them are represented in parliament.

The two largest minorities are the Hungarians, who account for 1.23 million people or 6.1 percent of the population, and the Roma, who number 621,000 officially but, according to their leaders, could number as many as two million.

Other ethnic groups are smaller: 51,000 Ukrainians, 36,000 Germans, 28,000 Turks, 20,000 Tatars, as well as Jews, Albanians and Ruthenians.

Romania's current president, Klaus Iohannis, elected in 2014, is the first head of state of German origin.

New wave

For the past 10 years, Romania has shone at international film festivals with a "new wave" in cinema. Directors such as Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu, Radu Jude, Calin Peter Netzer and Catalin Porumboiu have won prizes from Cannes to Berlin with films about the post-Communist transition.

While Romanian films may be critically acclaimed abroad, they are not really box-office hits at home because of a dearth of cinemas and the predominant taste of domestic audiences for Hollywood blockbusters.