The World | Annika Werner
“I believe that the government in Bucharest has not yet fully understood what it means to preside over EU countries.” The first criticism arrived before the Romanian government had even begun its presidency of the Council of the European Union in January 2019. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had given the interview with a German newspaper in late December. His statement hinted at the issues within the Romanian justice system and the backsliding in corruption fighting that have already caused worrying outcries from the European Parliament and Commission.
Twelve years after many judicial, economic and human rights reforms were made, Romania joined the European Union in 2007. Support for the European Union has traditionally been strong in the country; its application was signed by all Romanian political parties and every government since the Romanian Revolution in 1989 supported the transition. Its 2019 presidency of the Council is a further step towards integration through administrative leadership. The six months-presidency, integrated into a system of trio-presidencies, is specifically designed to allow smaller and newer member states to take
responsibility and set the agenda.
Romania has outlined four main areas for these six months during which the EU’s budget for 2021 – 2027 will be set: A Europe of convergence, a safer Europe, Europe as a strong global actor, and a Europe of common values. The fourth point will be of particular significance, considering the criticism Romania has faced due to its more recent reforms. According to the 1993 Copenhagen criteria, which lay down the entry requirements for membership applications, the common consensus of European values within the EU is that of “democracy, the rule of law, human rights, protection of minorities, a functioning market economy and the capability to cope with pressure within the EU”. Recent Romanian reforms have, however, aimed to overhaul their justice system with policies that contravene these values, such as introducing a planned criminal amnesty for corruption offenses and abuses of power. The party pushing for these changes, the Socialist Democratic Party (PSD), are acting in their own personal interest The PSD has been involved in numerous corruption scandals and its president, Liviu Dragnea, was convicted of abuse of office and sentenced to three years in prison.
Public resistance to the PSD’s reforms is high, especially among Romanians living abroad. In the summer of 2017, after the PSD-led government tried to decriminalize corruption by executive order, over 100,000 Romanians protested in the country’s largest demonstration since the fall of communism. Klaus Iohannis, the Romanian president, was elected on the promise that he will fight corruption and the justice system. This is consistent with his western-oriented approach towards foreign policy; the EU has identified these two problems as being at the core of what holds Romania back.
Upon Romania’s entry into the EU in 2007, the European Commission set up the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) as a step-by-step plan to help the country establish a rule of law. Although the country made progress, the Commission saw developments in 2017 and 2018 as negative steps, which resulted in an increase in CVM guidelines contrary to the planned decrease.
Considering that the EU, Romanian citizens, and the Romanian president have all disavowed this corruption, it may seem surprising that the PSD has been able to gain an overwhelming following in each general election. Their success goes back to their roots in the Communist party and its strong support amongst the poor. Promises for higher pensions and the distribution of free food during elections appeal to many. Twenty percent of the Romanian population lives under the poverty line. Half of the population lives in rural areas, compared to 37 % in Ireland.
For many, the European Union promises economic growth and stability, and statistics express a higher trust in EU institutions than in the national government. However, after twelve years of membership, the majority of Western European citizens and politicians have not yet warmed up to Romania. A historically rooted skepticism towards their neighbors who were once behind the Iron Curtain, different levels of economic development, and physical distance have resulted in a culture of ignorance and lack of information. As the president of the European Council, Romania now has the chance to present itself as a serious partner and build closer relationships with its Western partners.
This chance does not come without responsibility. If Romania is serious about fulfilling the integration process and developing partnerships based on equality, it has to establish a coherent rule of law. The European states have done their political duty in drawing up the 12-point Cooperation and Verification Mechanism.If they stand behind their motivation, they will use the opportunity to appeal to the Romanian population on a social level. This is what Donald Tusk understood when he countered Juncker by saying that Romania “will deliver”, a message that appealed to Romanians. As a result, this was received with hope and enthusiasm.
In conclusion, right-wing policies are only attractive when they have strong community support. An inclusive European Union that offers freedoms, economic growth and respect towards their Balkan member states can and has to set an attractive counterweight to nationalist tendencies. Therefore, the EU needs to bridge the gap and appeal to the Romanian population, emphasising their fight against corruption and the role Europe can play in it.
Originally published 18.04.19 in Vol. 2 No. 2.
Photo Credit: Photo by Mihai Petre / CC BY 4.0 (https://commons. wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Protest_against_corruption_-_ Bucharest_2017_-_Piata_Victoriei_-_2.jpg?fbclid=IwAR- 1W1FzrnBBwbxWN2Rvv_Ez_zgVylkIPJjSUxlgUHdS- vcpjbJ7_WbGceZdg).