Romania takes EU helm amid tensions with Brussels

Bucharest - Romania has taken over the EU's rotating presidency at a tumultuous time for the bloc and just days after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker voiced doubts about the country's ability to do the job.

Brussels is already at loggerheads with the increasingly populist government in Bucharest on multiple fronts and Juncker's comments highlight some of the strains.

Romania took over on January 1 and will be in charge for the next six months as the European Union faces a series of key tests -- Brexit, parliamentary elections in which eurosceptics will vie for increased influence, and wrangling over the next budget.

Romania, which takes the presidency for the first time as it succeeds Austria, has been one of the EU's most consistently europhile member states since it joined in 2007.

But its left-wing government has recently begun to adopt the sort of nationalist rhetoric expounded by nearby Hungary and Poland.

All three are embroiled in disputes with the EU over controversial reforms that critics say undermine the rule of law.

Calendar of the rotating EU presidency from 2017 to 2020

Liviu Dragnea, head of the ruling Social Democrats (PSD) and widely seen as Romania's most powerful man, has slammed the EU as "unfair", claiming Brussels is seeking to deny Bucharest the "right to hold its own opinions".

In remarks to Die Welt on December 29, Juncker said that even if Romania was "technically well prepared" for the presidency, the "Bucharest government has not fully understood what it means to preside over the countries of the EU."

The EU presidency "requires a willingness to listen to others and a willingness to put one's own concerns in the background. I have some doubts about this," Juncker said.


- Opportunistic not ideological -


One of the main reasons for the cooling of relations between Bucharest and Brussels is the PSD's planned overhaul of Romania's judiciary, which the government says is aimed at clamping down on "abuses" by judges and magistrates.

But the European Commission wants the reforms scrapped, saying they undermine the fight against corruption in one of the EU's most graft-prone states.

EU officials "have the feeling, perhaps justifiably, that these reforms are for the benefit of Dragnea," said political scientist Andrei Taranu.

The government has proposed a criminal amnesty for politicians including Dragnea, who was given a suspended jail sentence for electoral fraud in 2016 and is being investigated in two other criminal cases.

In this context, Dragnea's switch to a more populist tone could be more opportunistic than ideological, Taranu said.

"He is copying the illiberal rhetoric of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban without understanding the concepts involved," Taranu said.

There are no signs that the government will put its plans on hold during its EU presidency.

The amnesty decree is expected to be issued soon, with a European source warning that such a step would cross a "red line".

If the decree goes ahead, Romania would be distracted from pan-European problems and instead have to devote energy to defending itself to its partners, the same source said, adding that the country "already suffers from a lack of credibility".


- Polarised society -


Moreover, Romania may find it difficult to speak with a united voice, given the tug-of-war between the government of Viorica Dancila -- the third PSD prime minister since 2016 -- and centre-right President Klaus Iohannis.

Iohannis, a keen pro-European who has frequently clashed with the government, represents Romania on the European Council.

The PSD won a comfortable election victory in 2016, but quickly sparked the country's biggest wave of protests since the collapse of communism with an attempt to water down anti-corruption laws.

Demonstrations have continued in the capital Bucharest but the PSD still enjoys solid support in poorer and more rural parts of the country, which have benefited from recent rises in wages and benefits.

Political analyst Radu Alexandru describes Romanian society as "very polarised and divided".

As well as being one of the EU's poorest countries, Romania also suffers from huge inequality.

EU membership has brought some tangible benefits to poorer regions of the country.

Romania has received 32 billion euros ($36 billion) in EU cohesion funds, part of which went to supplying running water to 40 percent of rural homes -- up from just one percent at the fall of communism in 1989.

But as sociologist Iulian Stanescu of the ICCV research institute points out, "EU membership can't solve everything".

Despite the benefits of being in the bloc and strong economic growth, Romania continues to suffer from chronic problems, including emigration.

"All around me I only see sad people and high-school students who want to leave," says 60-year-old electrician Gica Bobe, a resident of Turnu Magurele, a town in Romania's poor south.

By Mihaela Rodina