Wednesday

24th Jan 2018

Romania searching for EU respectability

  • University Square in Bucharest. 'We are not a new member state anymore, we should start engaging at European level,' EU minister Negrescu said (Photo: Stefan Jurca)

Twelve kilometres away from the centre of Bucharest, hidden in a wood, a brand new laboratory will soon start tests to create the world's most powerful laser.


The Magurele site is part of the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) project, a €300 million EU programme that involves institutions from Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Italy and the UK.

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  • In Magurele, EU scientists are testing the world's most powerful laser beam (Photo: Eric Maurice)

"It is the only project in the world with this power," Magurele's director Nicolae Victor Zamfir told a group of journalists who visited the facility, where laser and gamma-B experiments are due to start in 2019.

For the scientific community, the ELI project is an opportunity for breakthroughs such as finding new methods for identifying nuclear materials or new ways to produce radioisotopes used in medical treatments.

And for Romania, ELI's possibilities are a showcase for the development of the Magurele high-tech cluster, an attempt to put the country on the map for high-value research and innovation, and move away from its drab post-communist image.

Ten years after joining the EU, and a year ahead of taking the six-month presidency of the EU Council, on 1 January 2019, Romania is in a "new era of strategic transformation," according to foreign minister Teodor Melescanu.

He said that the country was "enjoying an unprecedented period of prosperity and stability" and that it was now "preoccupied not so much with the past but with the future".

Political demons

But back in Bucharest's centre, amid plentiful Christmas lights and busy shopping malls, the EU's fastest-growing economy is still struggling with its political demons.

For the past month, crowds have regularly taken the streets to protest against a reform of the judiciary that aims to make magistrates more accountable to political powers.

The bill, which was adopted on Monday (11 December) by the Chamber of Deputies, includes changes to a judicial inspection unit. It also excludes the word "independent" from the definition of prosecutors' activities and introduces financial liabilities for judges' rulings.

The bill will now be discussed in the Senate.

Critics - including the EU, the US and the country's general prosecutor - say that the reform would put the judiciary under political control and deter magistrates from investigating corruption cases.

The controversial plan comes only months after the government led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) tried to decriminalise some offences, such as abuse of office.

Suspicions over the PSD's motivation was increased by the fact that its leader, Chamber of Deputies speaker Liviu Dragnea, is barred from government because of a suspended sentence for electoral fraud and was charged last month for alleged fraud of EU funds.

'Deep state'

The government has pointed out that the reform was initiated by previous governments with the Superior Council of the Magistracy, and that it is now in the hands of the parliament.

But the European Commission - which monitors Romania's judicial and administration reforms through a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) - warned last month that "challenges to judicial independence are a serious source of concern."

And some PSD members clearly express distrust in the judiciary.

"I lived during the former regime, I cannot have trust in prosecutors, never," said Gabriela Cretu, the chair of the Senate's EU affairs committee.

"I don't trust giving them the possibility to replace the parliament, the government and everything," she said.

She said that the 'deep state' was "too strong", especially in the anti-corruption agency, the DNA, and that the "visible state [was] too weak."

A year before Romania takes the helm of the EU, this controversy adds to a widespread view that the member state is not yet up to EU standards.

Romania "doesn't have the best image," admitted Leonard Orban, who was the country's first EU commissioner in 2007 and is now the EU adviser to president Klaus Iohannis.

Stereotypes

He noted that across the EU, his country has "an image of a corrupt country, with problems with the functioning of the rule of law and judiciary system, the image of a poor country, that joined the EU too early."

"Such stereotypes still exist at the level of some stakeholders," he said.

"Sometimes this negative image was reflected in some decisions taken not only on big files like CVM or the accession to Schengen but also on other issues, like issues related to EU funds," he said, adding that EU auditors are "sometimes tougher" with Romania than with other countries.

Romania, which has fulfilled the technical criteria, is asking the EU to take a decision over its accession to the free-passport Schengen area, which other member states are still reluctant to grant.

Orban stressed however that Romania was a "very pro-European country" and that this was "well seen at EU level."

For Romanians, their first EU presidency in 2019 will be an opportunity to improve their image, as it will come at a crucial time for the EU.


Between January and the end of June 2019, the UK will leave the EU on 29 March; EU leaders will meet in Sibiu, in Transylvania, on 9 May, to close the so-called 'Leaders' Agenda' to relaunch the EU; and European elections will also take place in spring. The period will also be the last semester of the Juncker Commission.

"We need to be well prepared, it's not an easy task," said EU affairs minister Victor Negrescu.

'Impartial mediator'

He said that Romania will aim to be an "impartial mediator and consensus facilitator" in the discussions, which will also include sensitive negotiations of the EU budget after 2020.

"We believe that our country has the necessary arguments to help build bridges" between member states, he said.

"We are not a new member state anymore, we should start engaging at European level," he insisted, adding that his government would also use the presidency to "keep the Romanian population pro-European".

Despite EU concerns over the judiciary and the fight against corruption, Romania also wants to distinguish itself from "other countries in the region", like Hungary or Poland, which are seen as drifting away from core liberal EU values.

"Values are important for us and I believe that all member states should respect European values," Negrescu pointed out - asking that all member states should be assessed over their respect for EU values and the rule of law.

Romania wants EU signal on Schengen membership

Bucharest expects other member states to decide on its accession to the passport-free area before it takes the rotating EU presidency on 1 January 2019 - amid criticism of a controversial new justice reform.

Investigation

How Romania became an EU workers' rights 'guinea pig'

"We are paid as if we were a country of unqualified workers". Union leaders and labour rights experts reveal, in figures, the catastrophic consequences of the laws that have turned Romania into the country of the working poor.

Romania: We 'deserve' an EU agency

Deputy minister for European affairs highlights that Romania is 'the biggest country not having an agency', as one of the arguments to vote for Bucharest to host the medicines agency.

Hungary to tax NGOs that 'help' migration

Ahead of elections in April, Hungary's government swings into campaign mode by proposing a new set of rules to stop illegal migration and NGOs that assist in it.

Bulgaria's corruption problem mars EU presidency start

A dispute between the government and the president over an anti-corruption law has put the spotlight on one of the Bulgaria's main problems - just as it is trying to showcase its economic and social progress.

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