Stormy waters for the good ship Europe

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Stormy waters for the good ship Europe

European flags fly at half-mast in front the European Commission in Brussels. (AFP)

Not all is well in the European Union, where 2018 was a particularly difficult year. There was Brexit, which did not just wreak political havoc in the UK but brought uncertainty to the EU as well. How to prepare for a hard Brexit, which looks ever more likely? How to ensure Ireland will not fall of a cliff economically, once its main trading partner has left the organisation? How to react to other centrifugal forces, such as populist parties that have bought into neither the values nor the advantages their countries obtain from EU membership (to mind spring Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in Holland, Marine LePen’s Front National in France and others in Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Hungary and beyond)? How to react to separatist movements such as the Catalans, the Flemish or even the Scots, should they want to split from Britain as a consequence of Brexit?
As all this had not created sufficient friction, there was the wrangle over the Italian budget, the violent protests of the yellow vests in France, issues concerning freedom of the press and other inalienable democratic rights in Poland and Hungary and of course the ever-present issue of migration, which threatens European consensus at its very core.
Next year will probably be even more difficult. Most of the legacy issues will remain, Brexit will become a reality and in mid-May EU citizens will head to the polls to elect a new parliament. Wise stewardship becomes pivotal in such turbulent times. 
The EU presidency rotates every six months. The presidency matters, because it is charged with setting the agenda and work programmes, as well as facilitating dialogue.  From July to December 2018 it was held by Austria, which — under whatever leadership — has proved a stalwart member of the organisation, understanding and adhering to its values and rules. The country’s competent Foreign Minister, Karen Kneissel, was a formidable, competent and reassuring presence, who understood every detail of her brief. This was precisely what was needed in such difficult times.

Brexit and the elections to the European parliament will make the coming six months extraordinarily difficult. 

Cornelia Meyer

So much, so good. Just as the storm clouds are gathering, the presidency rotates again. It will be Romania’s turn for the coming six months. This may prove to be a problem. The EU Commission accuses the Romanian government of backsliding on democratic values a la Hungary or Poland, which Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă vehemently denied in her talks with EU commission president Jean Claude Juncker in early December. The commission’s latest anti-corruption report was the most critical since Romania joined the EU. In November, the European parliament voiced “deep concerns” about corruption in Romania. 
Both Dăncilă and George Ciamba, Romanian delegate-minister for European affairs, vehemently disagree with the EU’s comparison of Romania to Hungary and Poland and its assessment on corruption, quoting different circumstances and the country’s efforts to address these issues.
Nevertheless, Romania may technically be prepared to assume the leadership position for the next six months. What may, however, matter more is to have credibility among the other member countries. This can be achieved only by walking the walk on European values of democracy, human right and corruption; the latter in particular may prove difficult. Dăncilă and Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis do their best to convince EU leaders that they will address issues relating to corruption. This may prove hard, as long as Romania’s strong man, Liviu Dragnea, can be neither president nor prime minister because he has been convicted of vote rigging and is under suspicion of corruption. Yet Dragnea remains the de facto leader of Romania.
The EU espouses lofty values particularly as far as democracy, human rights and the absence of corruption are concerned. It defines itself in part though these values, although their interpretation differs widely among member countries. The old northern members view things more strictly than some on the southern rim or the new member states to the east. 
Brexit and the elections to the European parliament will make the coming six months extraordinarily difficult. The presidency will matter more than in any ordinary year and there is simply not space for disagreement between the country holding it and the Commission. Otherwise things risk becoming unstuck further. Let us hope that Dăncilă, Iohannis and Ciamba can steer the ship safely into harbor past the jagged rocks of Brexit, the parliamentary elections and whatever other hazards may lurk below the surface. 

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert.

Twitter: @MeyerResources

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