Romania’s Presidency of the Council of the EU: opportunities and challenges

13.August 2018

by Miruna Butnaru-Troncotă 

2019 is a year with heavy symbolism for the European Union – we celebrate 15 years of the CEE enlargement, 30 years since the fall of communist regimes in South-Eastern Europe, but also 20 years since the war in Kosovo and NATO’s bombing of Serbia. Will 2019 be a year of renewed opportunities for the Western Balkans? Will the member states become more enlargement-friendly and opt for a ‘widening EU’ type of scenario? Let me explore some of the challenges and opportunities both for Romania as a member state holding the Presidency, and for the EU itself in relation to the WB countries.

One of the most important opportunities is that Romania announced that its presidency will be a ‘Western Balkans friendly’ one, continuing the efforts made by Bulgaria and Austria on the same issue. Hence, Romania’s first experience of the rotating presidency represents a chance for policy coherence and continuity within the EU thanks to this ‘historic sequencing’ of three enlargement-friendly Member States,  which will be continued in 2020 with the Croatian Presidency and the next EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb. Romania’s presidency could be a chance to maintain more attractiveness for enlargement within the member states, if it is properly prioritised. Romania has a visibly better economic situation one decade after its EU accession. Such positive effects need to be widely acknowledged and ‘advertised’ to the candidate countries.

But there are a series of challenges that pose multiple risks. Current political tensions in Romania regarding violations to the rule of law also reverberate in terms of Romanian foreign policy. This politicisation and polarisation between the anti-government protests of civil society (which started in the winter of 2017 with the #rezist Movement, the biggest street protests since the Revolution in 1989) and the contested decisions of the Social Democrat Party raise doubts whether Romania will manage to act as an ‘honest broker’ and achieve its priorities for the Council Presidency. The harsh contradictions between the Government and the Presidency, which became evident in most of their public statements in the last months, may have a damaging effect on Romania’s image. Moreover, Romania will hold Presidential elections in the autumn of 2019 and this may inflame public discourse. This is, from my point of view, one of the main challenges that we face ahead of Sibiu. Current domestic debates in Romanian politics are already polarized and ‘pre-electoral’ battles already started. This is not quite an encouraging sign before Romania takes the Presidency because this should be a common national effort, yet for the moment is visibly politicised. Another challenge is the divide between rhetoric and concrete actions in terms f our foreign policy focus on the Balkans: Romania needs to show concrete projects and a real helping hand for the EU integration of the WB countries in its close neighbourhood. For the moment, a great discursive effort has been put into promoting the Balkans, they have little visibility in national public debate, and few projects are addressed to Balkan elites present in Romania. The other considerable challenge (which also kept Romania out of the Berlin process) is that it is one of the five EU member states that does not recognise Kosovo and this negatively affects its role in facilitating the process (as seen in the Sofia Summit). A new turning point in the normalisation process between Belgrade and Pristina is expected in 2019 and it will be interesting to follow how Romania’s position will relate to these evolutions. Another important challenge comes from within the Union itself.  The debate about the future of Europe during the Sibiu summit will be challenged by the (already) visible tensions between the Council and the Commission – and the national and supranational forces colliding inside the Union – each with different perspectives for the EU. These tensions will most visibly affect the negotiations for the next multi-annual financial framework but will also have an impact on the enlargement policy.

The Brexit effects

Since the United Kingdom triggered Article 50 of TEU, the EU has been going through a massive internal reform process and this has created multiple uncertainties. One can look at them either as challenges (scenarios of disintegration and disunity) or as opportunities (strengthening integration and bringing member states even closer). It is, in the end, a matter of strategic decision-making. In Sibiu everyone is waiting for a new equation that will redefine the EU: EU27 + 6 = ?

At the same time, Brexit brought a reboot of the enlargement philosophy towards the Balkans. Simply put, we need to acknowledge that the road to Sibiu also goes via the Western Balkans. This renewed project of enlargement has to fight against increasingly popular far-right movements that promote Euro-scepticism or even open aversion to any new enlargement, building on the negative feelings they propagated concerning the migration crisis. In this sense, there is a need to focus more on highlighting a sense of reciprocity, by outlining that the accession of countries in the region is in the interest of both the Western Balkans and the EU itself. Increased coordinated effort is needed to boost the legitimacy of the EU, to connect with disaffected citizens, and to combat Euroscepticism. Enlargement should be more present in national public spheres both inside the EU and in the Balkans. It should be understood as an essential geo-strategic investment for the EU, not as a ‘favour’ that the West does for its periphery. I expect Romania’s presidency in 2019 to highlight (especially for citizens in the member states) that the process of EU integration is vital both for the stabilisation of the Western Balkans and for securing the EU’s borders. The EU needs to strengthen its role in the Balkans and for that a new narrative is needed. It is to be expected that the WB countries will move forward on the reform path at different rhythms, and facing numerous obstacles, but their accession process is irreversible. Regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations remain essential in this context.

The two buzz words – credibility and commitment – that will shape the EU-Balkans relationship in the next decade need to be taken seriously on both sides, which for the moment is not quite the case.  The recent EU-Balkan relationship has been characterised by a blame-shifting game that has resulted in a deepening lack of trust between the two sides. Anyone who has experienced a painful break-up knows that a relationship fails when one side expect the other to change, without wanting to change themselves. I strongly believe that instead of ‘lecturing’ the other side, and expecting only the other to improve, EU 27 and WB 6 need to coordinate in order to both change for their common future. All in all, I expect Romania’s presidency in 2019 to be inclusive and to take advantage of the global media attention that any EU Presidency receives in order to use it in favour of the enlargement agenda.