Too small for such a big war

The New Year began “en force” at the Victoria Palace. PM Emil Boc summoned the ministers of sensitive sectors (education, transport, regional development) for a working meeting, thus giving the signal that the time for partying is over and Romania must return to its homework, especially as we are much behind schedule in terms of European funds.

Our country’s relations with Brussels are still a very sensitive matter, which is getting colder each day. With this regard, the new year brings no good news. Foreign Minister Teodor Baconschi gives unconvincing explanations in the media, warning in an interview that Bucharest might retort to its non-admission to the Schengen Zone by unilaterally denouncing the Justice monitoring mechanism (MCV) and by conditioning Croatia’s accession to the European Union.

Baconschi explains Romania’s reaction to the letter of the French and German ministers of Foreign Affairs, which asked that the Schengen accession of the country is postponed. “We must firmly stick to our principles. The rules enforced for any other enlargement of the Schengen Zone must be observed. I find it incorrect to accept this precedent, in which two states – no matter which – change the rules during the game,” said the minister. His reaction came shortly after the head of state, Traian Basescu, said that the opposition of France and Germany to the Schengen accession is an act of discrimination against Romania.

For an objective observer, Romanian officials seem to have overreacted. Romania was not – and is not – an example of European integration and rapid adaptation to the norms and mechanisms of the Union. Naturally, the issue of the Schengen accession is only the tip of the iceberg, though a visible and sensitive one. This also explains the reactions of Romanian officials, who probably think they must make public statements proving how vertical they are in their relations with the EU. Unfortunately, this kind of speech risks having no echo in Europe, especially as Brussels considers both Romania and Bulgaria with an ever increasing reluctance. Coincidently, also on Monday, Wikileaks made public a cable sent by the State Department to the US Embassy in Sofia on June 26, 2009, which reveals the frustration of several EU states for the constant lack of progress experienced by judicial reform in Romania and Bulgaria.

The document, signed by former US ambassador to Sofia, Nancy McEldowney, quotes an official of the European Commission (EC), who was also a member of the team tasked with monitoring reforms in the two countries, speaking mainly about Bulgaria. In Brussels, there already is some talk about enlargement weariness. The pressures exerted by the EC through the Mechanism of Cooperation and Verification (MCV), and the decision to block European funds were the only methods presented by the EC official as effective in convincing Sofia and Bucharest to do what they should. The same source admitted that former Dutch Minister of Justice, Franz Timmermans intended to firmly demand the activation of the safeguard clause against Romania and Bulgaria, after the Country Report released in the summer of 2009. According to the cable, some officials are getting increasingly tired with the lack of progress experienced by Romania and Bulgaria. The EC official also unveiled that many voices in Brussels asked the EU, in the summer of 2009, to keep the MCV in place beyond the three years provided by the accession treaties signed with Bulgaria and Romania. There is a huge frustration over the apathy of the Bulgarian government and the dishonest reform efforts, warns the document. At least at the working level of the EC, there is some regret for having Bulgaria and Romania admitted too early in the club, adds the source.

The Romanian Minister for Foreign Affairs must have known these things. Since 2009, Romania has made some technical progress, by adapting itself to the conditions set for the accession to Schengen. But, in terms of justice and human capital, things are not seen very well in Brussels, though some progress is acknowledged. The recent disputes surrounding the Supreme Council of Magistrates (CSM) did no service to Romanian justice, so the message sent by FM Baconschi risks to have minimal effects, if not plainly opposed to what it was meant to be. Romania is too small for such a big “war,” especially with Paris and Berlin clearly saying that Bucharest should wait some more time. Maybe we should carefully review our homework. Equally strange is the idea of bringing Croatia – a country that has very good relations with Romania – into the equation of the dispute. In fact, former Foreign minister Cristian Diaconescu, now the honourary president of junior ruling partner UNPR, described as “hot-headed” the statements made by the chief of the Romanian diplomacy. In his turn, the former negotiator of Romania’s accession to the EU, Prof. Vasile Puscas said that unilaterally denouncing the MCV is possible, but may affect European funds. “The unilateral denouncing could draw measures related to European funds. Such a move may signal that corruption stays in place, and nobody invests in a corrupt country. Anyway, all the talk about denouncing the MCV only strengthens the impression that the government is hiding the corruption,” Puscas warned. Another reaction came from Liberal MEP Renate Weber, who described as “bellicose” and late the reactions of the Romanian FM.

We must not see Brussels’ reaction as a dictate one cannot object to. European policies themselves have many negative examples of hesitation and backtracking, some even hilarious. But our concern should be Romania’s evolution in Europe. We cannot stop wondering whether this is a moment of diplomatic weakness in our foreign policy, in the very first days of 2011. These last years, Bucharest had poor results in terms of state visits (except for those related to Brussels, which became mandatory at various levels) and of receiving foreign officials in Romania, with a few exceptions. Our foreign policy did not excel at any level, at least this is what analysts are saying. However, our present impasse relates both to foreign and domestic policy, where evolutions were equally hesitant. 2011 might be a year of truth for our relations with the European Union. We hope to witness a positive change.

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