The Romanian Presidency of the EU Council has launched in grand style, in Bucharest.
Newspapers all over Europe are talking about it .
And no wonder, the historical juncture for the Romanians to steer their first ever Presidency exercise is unique and immensely challenging, as it covers Brexit, negotiations on the next EU budget and the European elections.
In a speech, which gained the hearts of many Romanians due to the high respect it paid to the country’s language, history and cultural richness, President of EU Council, Donald Tusk, underlined the critical importance of this Presidency stating that the future of Europe will be heavily influenced by the success of this exercise over the next few months.
Let me debunk some myths around what success is for the Romanian Presidency and make some concrete proposals for what success could be.
Success is critical, but what is the real measure of success?
Well, let’s start by stating what it is not. Most of the publications referring to the official launch event focused on the state of internal politics in Romania, linking the success of this Presidency with the ability of the country to overcome the political divides inside the country.
The reality is that this indicator seems a bit out of place. Here's why:
Belgium exercised its presidency during the period of 589 days when they did not have a Government and it is regarded as one of the most successful Presidencies in this past decade;
The technical part of the exercise is often more important than the political element of it, as the example above clearly indicates. Having internal political disagreements is a natural feature of democracy, without an opposition a system can hardly be called democratic.
When compared to other member states in the region, such as Hungary or Poland, one could go as far as to draw the conclusion that the fraught political debate in Romania is, after all, an indication that it is heading in the right direction.
It is particularly problematic that these conflicts spill out at the EU level and are instrumentalised by the big EU political families, but this is not an issue the Romanians can solve alone.
In short, we can’t expect Romania to overcome its internal political division nor should we.
However, we can demand, as European citizens, for these conflicts to be handled with high standards of professionalism. This has to be case both in Bucharest and in Brussels.
In an article by Politico, it appears that the country’s President, Mr. Klaus Werner Johannis, when asked whether there was a double standard applied to Romania, stated that the country is better than it is made to look.
I couldn’t agree more with this assessment.
One simple example, is freedom of the press, for example, you will see that at the regional level, Romania has the freest press, when compared to any of its EU neighbours and is in a better situation than the whole region.
Unlike in its neighbouring countries, being an investigative political journalist is not a life threatening career choice and the political fights are also not leading to a whole opposition being silenced off.
The technical / political split
The example of the Belgian Presidency does indicate exercise is normally mostly a technical one. And yet, for Romania, the point on the technicality is not so much the case, as the period of negotiations on EU files is shortened to less than half of their mandate due to the incoming European elections so yes, in this case, the country’s technical input is important, but will only be driving force for the first half of the Presidency.
With the end of March approaching, Brexit looming up the Summit of Sibiu, it is clear that needs to provide political leadership on discussions, going beyond the technicalities of steering the files towards agreement.
The answer to this must clearly come from the special circumstances the next 6 months are raising for the EU – will the country be able to provide a meaningful contribution throughout this existential reckoning?
I hope so and please read below to see what this contribution could look like.
On the political aspects of a successful Presidency, the wrong indicators are being employed.
For example, the country’s accession to the Schengen area, is used as an indicator of a politically successful Presidency.
Well, the country had met all the criteria for entering this space back in 2011 and the European Parliament has voted several times recommending the country is accepted in, the last time being in December 2018.
So yes, we can and we should expect the country to make into Schengen (where only 22 of the EU MS are members) but we don’t need to link this to the Presidency, as this debate predates the Presidency exercise by some 8 years.
Also, they have nothing to do with the wider European agenda and when a country takes the Presidency seat their focus must be on the EU agenda.
Indicators for Success for #RO2019EU
1. The first indicator for the country’s successful Presidency will be whether and how they handle Brexit. There are still issues which remain unresolved. For anyone following British politics (speaking of en-trenched political fighting!), it will become clear that the possibility of a no-deal hard Brexit is real.
The EU has to already step forward and provide a back up plan for the UK citizens in the EU (currently still EU citizens with a right to have as much of a predictable life as any other EU citizen).
Since EU citizenship is linked to national citizenship of a MS, this can only be achieved through a third status – here the EU Green Card proposed by New Europeans would be the most obvious and easiest to implement step.
For this to happen already by the end of March, this topic would need to make it on the Council agenda immediately following the Parliamentary vote in the U
2. The second indicator will be obviously linked to the Sibiu Summit.
In my view, this summit has to be about the vision for 2050, which the EU launched in November.
After all, it can’t really be about other topics, it can’t really be about Treaty Reform, nor can it be about moving Europe forward on integration (sadly), mostly because of the so-called ‘Polish-Italian axis’. But it must certainly and urgently be about climate change and about the migration crisis.
On climate change, the EU is well placed to have this debate. The Energy Union with a forward looking climate change is an ongoing project and the EU Treaties have provisions for taking this forward.
As we know, emissions globally are on the rise, giving the world a little under a decade to avoid what might be a mass extinction. No better time to start acting, than now. In fact, there will not be another time. It really is now or never for the EU, certainly waiting 5 years would be too late.
3. On migration, well the EU has failed looking inwards. It is sad and not in line with its values but we must be realistic.
The solution is looking outwards. We must step up the EU as a global actor on migration and revamp the Geneva convention, allow the EU Representations aboard to process claims for asylum in the country or along migratory routes and return to the use of internal law solution with a focus on a global answer.
This will require the EU to step up in terms of strengthening its Common Foreign and Security Policy but again, that is really the only way ahead looking out into a world of increased insecurity.
In short, Romania’s successful EU Presidency does not depend on :
* silencing in-country political fighting but on acting as a unitary actor vis-à-vis the EU – here the EU has to do the same, including the political party families as they will be going through elections;
*. accession to Schengen – this is a separate debate, ongoing for 10 years, it does not reflect the country’s political ability to steer a EU Presidency.
The Romanian successful EU Presidency does depend on:
* Finding constructive ways forward in ensuring citizens are not at risk as a result of Brexit;
*. Running a successful Sibiu summit with a focus on climate change and further integration in Common Foreign and Security Policy as to allow action on migration at the Global level.
President Tusk’s speech, which made him the star of the official launch of this extra special Presidency (together with the European Union orchestra), was very much about the fight to protect democracy and striving to achieve the impossible, even when seemingly unlikely.
I wrote this article in this spirit and I do very much think that defending citizens in the face of Brexit, mitigating climate change and planning ahead for 2050 and boosting up the EU as a global actor are all actions which would go in the direction of defending democracy. Might seem ambitious, but in desperate times, we need to step up our game.
Over to you, Romania! As a EU citizen from Romania, I wish you the best of luck!