22 January 2019

Romania took over the Council of the EU presidency at the beginning of 2019, for the first time since it joined the EU in 2007.

The role of the rotating presidency of the Council remains largely symbolic. The member state holding the position gets to set the agenda, but ultimately it does not play a role in deciding future European policies.

With its motto being “Cohesion, a common European value,” the Romanian presidency promises to work as an “honest broker” and keep unity among the EU28 – soon to be 27.

However, it is difficult to see how cohesion fits in with the reality of European politics in the next few months. The EU is facing the withdrawal of the UK in March (as it stands now) and European Parliament elections in May, while several member states are caught in domestic political instability.

Overall, it will be challenging for Romania to build consensus for the goals it wants to achieve in the areas it lists as its presidency’s priorities.

The next EU budget

The next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) – the EU’s long-term budget – is due to be in place by the end of 2020 and Romania hopes to further advance the debate on the European Commission’s proposal before June. These negotiations promise to be difficult, not least because the second largest economy is leaving the bloc and leaving a gap which will either need to be filled, or require a reassessment of the budget plans.

Some member states are categorically against increasing contributions after Brexit. Meanwhile, Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, being net recipients of the EU budget, oppose linking funds to conditions such as respect for the rule of law and judiciary independence – a proposal which has been backed by the European Parliament.

The division between the priorities of net recipients and net contributors will remain important in future negotiations, and this year’s presidencies, held by Romania and Finland, are likely to reveal the deep cleavages.

Plans for European digital tax stall

Plans for a European-wide digital tax of 3% on firms with a global annual turnover of €750m, proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron, are also on Romania’s list of issues to move on. However, the floundering of talks in December meant that a 3% tax on advertising sales was implemented instead. Opposition by countries, such as Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and Estonia, is likely to persist and 2019 will see this digital tax being enacted at the national level in France and Austria.

A safer Europe

Managing the flows of migration coming from outside the EU is one of the main elements of Romania’s goal to improve Europe’s security. The latest Eurobarometer survey results suggest that immigration to the EU remains the top concern of the public. Despite numbers of arrivals via the Mediterranean Sea actually decreasing since the migration crisis, the issue featured in several domestic elections and has become a polarising issue in national politics. Controversy over the UN Migration Pact, which contains largely symbolic commitments, paralysed the Belgian government and sparked intense debate in Germany.

The Austrian presidency, which lasted from July to December 2018, promised to build bridges between the EU’s West and the East, but seems to have done the opposite by encouraging bilateral exchanges and migration deals. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz shifted the discussion towards the protection of the EU’s external borders, rather than making progress on proposals for redistribution and mending divisions. It is unclear whether Romania will be able to get any further than what has already been agreed.

There is still deadlock over reforming the Dublin regulation – the policy which requires refugees to claim asylum in the member state they arrive to – as the Commission’s proposals  for reform were not agreed by European leaders at the last European Council.

At last year’s June Council, leaders came up with plans for ‘controlled centres’ in the EU and ‘disembarkation platforms’ in cooperation with third parties in order to manage migration. Neither of these proposals advanced in the last few months, as they were met with hostility from many EU member states and third parties such as Morocco.

One of the latest proposals made to counter the lack of decisions on migration came in December 2018, when France and Germany suggested countries contribute financially if they refuse to host migrants. This is also unlikely to be an acceptable solution to member states such as Hungary and Poland.

In January, EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos called for a reform of asylum rules, adding,

The European Union cannot continue to rely on unorganised, ad-hoc solutions when it comes to disembarkation.

However, the recent example of NGO boats carrying refugees rescued in the Mediterranean by Malta demonstrates how difficult it is to reach consensus and come up with an effective response, even on a smaller scale. The boats were not allowed to disembark for days, until eight EU member states agreed to help Malta welcome some of the refugees as an ad-hoc solution.

The widespread public concern about migration from outside the EU and the lack of appetite for reform do not bode well for a “cohesive” migration policy strategy to achieve a “stronger Europe.” Several national governments have become inflexible and even unambitious proposals have been frustrated.

Europe as a ‘stronger global actor’

Over the last few weeks, there have been talks about the creation of an ‘European army’ as a complement to NATO, but agreement on further defence integration is far from imminent. Several member states, particularly from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), would oppose any plan that would come close to threatening NATO integration. Leaders have opposite views on the future of European defence integration. For instance, while President Macron and Chancellor Merkel stated that Europe can no longer count on the US for its security, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said,

The only real guarantor of security in Europe, including the eastern flank of NATO, is the US.

In relations with the Eastern neighbourhood, in which the Romanian presidency hopes to achieve “consistency and effectiveness,” debates about concrete responses promise to be tense. The sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea have been rolled over until June, but no further action was taken following the Russian seizure of Ukrainian ships in the Sea of Azov in December, despite the EU condemning the move.

On the issue of enlargement, progress with the Western Balkans has been moderate. There have been several positive developments last year, such as the adoption of a new EU Enlargement Strategy, the opening of new chapters in the accession processes of Serbia and Montenegro, and the June Prespes Agreement changing FYROM’s name to North Macedonia (a requirement from the current Greek government to allow FYROM to enter NATO and begin the EU accession process).

But there have also been setbacks, particularly in Serbia-Kosovo relations. Despite the rhetoric, for many member states, the Western Balkans region is simply not a priority, especially given the lack of progress in fighting problems such as corruption and rule of law – as noted by the European Council last June, when it delayed the opening of negotiations with Albania and Macedonia.

Poland’s and Romania’s judicial reforms as well as Hungary’s turn towards ‘illiberal democracy’ cast doubt on these countries’ willingness to implement EU laws. This has led to the fear of further clashes if some Western Balkan countries join too quickly. Indeed, Former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel added,

An EU without the British, but with soon-to-be-members Serbia, Albania or Kosovo won’t just be a different one in numerical terms.

The UK’s departure as well as recent tensions in the EU-US relationship will have an impact on the EU’s redefinition of its global role. Romania hopes to prove that the EU is able to act on its own in foreign policy matters. It is questionable whether leaders will actually manage to agree concrete policies.

What next in the EU schedule?

An informal summit will be held in Sibiu in May in order to discuss the EU’s strategy for the future after the UK’s withdrawal. But being held just weeks before the European elections, it will be difficult to set a route forward as the results of the vote might have important implications for the EU’s future, especially with Eurosceptic parties actively joining the race and set to increase their influence in the European Parliament.