Romania Launches EU Presidency Amid Protests and Warnings

Romania's government on Thursday staged the opening ceremony of its European Union Council presidency amid popular protests and renewed calls from EU leaders for the country to respect the rule of law. 

Romania’s government on Thursday inaugurated its six-month presidency of the European Union Council amid popular protests and renewed calls from EU guests for the country to continue to fight corruption.

Some 800 people attended the ceremony that took place at the Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest, but hundreds of others joined protests, holding up pro-EU banners and chanting slogans against the ruling Social Democratic Party.

Photo: Liviu Florin Albei/Inquam Photos

“We want to stay in Europe, we don’t want dictatorship,” the crowd chanted, as protesters held banners reading: “Stop Corruption”, “EU, sorry for this govt”, “Romania fights for justice”.

Photo: Liviu Florin Albei/Inquam Photos

Romania has experienced political instability in the past two years since the Social Democrats won the December 2016 elections. Protests started in January 2017, when the cabinet passed an emergency decree to pardon some corruption-related offences.

Demonstrations continued throughout 2017 and 2018 as officials pushed more legislation to relax the fight against corruption. On August 10, hundreds were wounded when riot police intervened with force to disperse protesters in front of the government HQ in Bucharest.

President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani, (R), and European Commission Chief Jean Claude Juncker (C) arriving at the ceremony. Photo: George Calin/Inquam photos

The government’s controversial justice-related policies have drawn heavy criticism from Brussels. In November 2018, the European Commission released its most pessimistic report on Romania’s justice affairs since the country joined the EU in 2007.

European officials have not shied away from renewing their warnings, despite Thursday’s festive occasion.

“The EU is made up of compromises, but when it comes to people’s rights, the rule of law, the fight against corruption, no compromises are possible,” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said in his speech.

The head of the European Council, Donald Tusk, drew ovations after making his speech in Romanian. But, like the other top EU officials, he also spoke about the fight against corruption and the rule of law.

“I would like to call on all Romanians to defend, both in Romania and in Europe, the basis of our political civilization: freedom, integrity, respect for truth in public life, the rule of law and the constitution,” Tusk said.

Romanian Pm Viorica Dancila greeting European Commission chief Jean Claude Juncker. Photo: Octav Ganea/Inquam Photos

The Romanian EU Council Presidency is expected to manage several difficult EU dossiers, including the budget framework for 2021-2017, European elections in May, the handover of the current European Commission to the newly elected executive body, and, the biggest challenge of all, Brexit.

“We will demonstrate that Romania deserves respect from the European community and European partner status, and is fully prepared to stand among the other member states,” Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila said on Thursday.

Officials in Brussels and some opposition politicians in Bucharest have voiced concerns that while the Romanian government might be able to act as an effective secretariat of the EU, its backtracking on corruption at home might undermine its political credibility.

Social Democrat leader Liviu Dragnea, who was sentenced twice for corruption in 2016 and 2018, did not attend the ceremony in Bucharest. He was allegedly on vacation.

President Klaus Iohannis, who is at odds with the cabinet after refusing to approve two Social Democrat nominations for ministers and who has also rejected twice the government’s nominee for the post of anti-corruption chief prosecutor, announced that he would participate only hours before the ceremony. 

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