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20th Jan 2019

Graft at home overshadows Romania's EU presidency

  • All smiles. Frans Timmermans (l) reaches out to Romania's prime minister Viorica Dancila (Photo: European Commission)

Romania on Tuesday (1 January) took the helm of the EU's rotating six month presidency - for the first time since it joined the European Union 12 years ago.

Its presidency role, which helps steer and coordinate EU policy and legislation among the 28 member states, comes amid growing European Commission frustration with Bucharest over corruption and the erosion of the rule of law at home.

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In early December, the president of the commission Jean-Claude Juncker offered diplomatic platitudes on Romania's importance in the EU when appearing alongside the country's premier Viorica Dancila at a joint press conference in Brussels.

But over the weekend, in an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, Juncker took a more severe tone.

He said while Romania was "technically well-prepared" for the EU presidency, it had yet to fully grasp what it means to take the chair over the EU countries.

"What is more, Romania's internal situation is such that the country cannot act as a compact unit in Europe," he said, noting that Bucharest needs to present a united front at home to foster EU unity.

European Council president Donald Tusk on Tuesday issued a more conciliatory message in a tweet, saying he was confident of Romania's presidency.

But these statements follow a critical commission report on Romania, which took issue with Romania's amended justice laws, the pressure on judicial independence in general, and efforts to undermine its national anti-corruption directorate (DNA).

Frans Timmermans, the commission vice-president, at the time said Romania had not only stalled on reforms but also "backtracked on issues where progress was made over the past 10 years".

He also defended the importance of press freedoms in the country following threats by Romania's data protection chief to impose a €20m fine on investigative journalists.

In its defence, Romania's government says the criticism is unfair and unjustified.

One of the EU's most vocal critics is the disgraced ruling Social Democrats (PSD) party leader, Liviu Dragnea.

"I can no longer accept all the lies coming from the West saying that we make laws for our own benefit," he recently said.

Dragnea was sentenced to some three years in prison in June for abuse of office, adding to prior convictions for electoral fraud. He has since appealed the sentence.

Last year, he was accused by the DNA of committing fraud of EU funds and setting up an organised criminal group.

His ally and party member Mihai Fifor on Monday said the European Union was treating Romania as a second-rate nation.

Around a month after the PSD party won the elections in December 2016, the left-wing government moved to decriminalise corruption, triggering some of the largest street protests ever held in Romania.

New 'EU presidents' strangling free press

Romania's press freedom is "in free fall" as it takes over its EU presidency, Reporters Without Borders has warned, amid wider EU concern on judicial meddling and corruption.

Romania data chief defends forcing press to reveal sources

Romania's data protection authority is headed by Ancuta Gianina Opre, who in 2017 was charged with abuse of office in her previous job. Last week, she threatened a €20m fine against journalists in their effort to uncover corruption.

Romanian PM wades into '€20m fine for journalists' row

Prime minister Viorica Dancila told EUobserver that Romania's constitution guarantees freedom of expression for journalists - but insisted EU data protection rules must be respected. Her comments follow threats to impose a €20m fine on a group of investigative reporters.

Agenda

Romania takes over the EU This WEEK

Romania will officially take over the EU's presidency this week, with commissioners and senior EU officials kicking off the testing next six-month period with meetings in Bucharest.

Romania mired in corruption woes as presidency begins

With the country's de facto leader filing a lawsuit at the EU's top court over report accusing him of corruption, and concerns of the country's rule of law, Romania's EU presidency kicked off in Bucharest to a rocky start.

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