Romania says political infighting won't hamper its EU presidency

BRUSSELS/BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Political divisions will not undermine Romania’s six-month EU presidency, top officials from Bucharest said on Thursday, as the European Commission expressed concerns over whether the country was ready to lead the bloc until mid-2019.

FILE PHOTO: Romanian President Klaus Iohannis arrives at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

In its first stint at the helm of the European Union, Romania faces Brexit in March, European Parliament elections in May and tough talks on the next long-term EU budget.

But the second-poorest EU country, which joined in 2007, is politically divided and under EU scrutiny over corruption and concerns about the rule of law.

President Klaus Iohannis, a centrist who represents Romania at EU summits, has been critical of the Social Democratic government’s preparedness for the presidency and its plans to overhaul the judiciary, which have raised EU concerns.

The government would rather the prime minister represented the country.

Some in Brussels believe the political infighting and rule of law concerns could overshadow Romania’s main responsibility to seek consensus on various issues between EU governments.

“We will show that Romania is well prepared to manage the important files ... (and) can generate consensus at European level,” Prime Minister Viorica Dancila said at a ceremony marking the start of the presidency.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, also present, said late last year the Romanian government “has not yet fully understood what it means to preside over EU countries.”

Deputy lower parliamentary house speaker Florin Iordache said Romania understood that role very well - though upper house head Calin Popescu-Tariceanu used the occasion of the ceremony to criticize the opposition.

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“Some institutions and decision makers are still holding on to unchecked power they have previously indulged in,” he said.

While not under a formal EU monitoring procedure like Poland or Hungary, Romania has raised concern with its attempts to decriminalize some corruption offences.

The leader of the ruling Social Democrats, Liviu Dragnea, has a conviction for vote rigging that bars him from becoming prime minister.

Dragnea, who has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, has been pushing Dancila’s government for legal changes, including a decree that would grant prison pardons and amnesty, including for himself.

Juncker said in a speech that, when it came to rule of law, “there can be no compromise”.

About 800 pro-EU and anti-government demonstrators braving freezing temperatures and waving EU and Romanian flags gathered outside the Athenaeum building where the ceremony took place.

They chanted “Resignation, Resignation” and “We want Europe, not dictatorship” referring to the ruling Social Democrat party’s drive to weaken the anti-corruption fight and Dragnea’s authoritarian rule.

The chairman of European leaders Donald Tusk said it was up to Romania to show if its politics would be a good example, or a dire warning for an EU struggling with the rise of populism and nationalism.

“To those in the European Union who might think that playing outside the agreed rules and cutting corners means strength, I say: you are wrong. It means weakness,” Tusk, a former Polish prime minister said in Romanian.

Romania’s Minister for European Affairs George Ciamba said the political dispute in Bucharest was unlikely to end.

Reporting By Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Robin Pomeroy