What are the challenges of Romania’s Presidency of the European Council?

Under the motto „ cohesion, a common European value“, Romania took over the Presidency of the European Council for the first time in its history on January 1st 2019. According to Romania, the country takes its role as an honest broker very seriously and wants to play a key role in planning the future of the European Union. The Romanian President Klaus Johannis pointed out that his country has to prove that it is able to rise to the challenges of the European Council Presidency and that it truly wants to participate in the consolidation of the EU.

Romania has defined four focal points for its presidency; the main focus should be on the convergence and the security in Europe, on the European Union as a strong global player as well as on common European values. According to experts, however, subjects such as the Brexit, the “Migration Package” and the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will probably be even more in the foreground. However Romania stated to deal with the MFF issue only after the European elections. The goal is to develop a basis in order to come to an agreement by autumn 2019. Still and all, the currently unfavourable conditions complicate the implementation of the objectives set.

On one hand there is still uncertainty over Great Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and on the other hand the European elections will take place during Romania’s Presidency. These events alone create unrest within the EU and its Member States. The internal instability of the Partidul Social Democrat (PSD) presents another alarming factor which casts serious doubts as to whether Romania is even capable of dealing with the responsibility of such a difficult Presidency. The concerns even go so far that Finland, which will be holding the Presidency as from 1 July 2019, proposed to take over Romania’s Council Presidency. As if these conditions were not difficult enough, Romania now is under the close observation of the European Commission due to deficiencies in the fight against corruption and on the basis of the cancellation of constitutional reforms that have already been implemented at the time of Romania’s accession to the EU. These factors cause the current tense relations between Brussels and Bukarest.

Romania’s domestic political situation does not contribute to an improvement of the situation. Conflicts exist between the social-liberal government and the Romanian President Klaus Johannis, who is related to the middle-class opposition. Johannis criticises that the government would threaten the independence of the judiciary by weakening prosecutors for the benefit of politicians that are suspected of corruption. In addition the social-liberal coalition has recently placed the filling of leadership positions of public prosecutors under political control. It has introduced a new specialised unit attached to the prosecution office, that is directly subordinated to the Minister of Justice and that is now empowered to take over all cases of corruption. Experts fear that the already strained situation may deteriorate due to the Romanian Presidential elections in autumn 2019.

Despite this gloomy outlook it remains to be seen how Romania will coordinate its Council Presidency. The EU on the other hand could use Romania’s Council Presidency in order to address illiberal developments in Romania as well as in other Member States.