BUCHAREST (Reuters) – Political divisions will not impede Romania’s six-month presidency of the European Union, its foreign minister said on Thursday.
In its first stint at the helm of the EU, Romania faces Brexit, due to happen 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 ahead of the European elections and its own presidential polls toward the end of the year. It is also 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 EU presidency and its plans to overhaul the judiciary that have raised EU concern.
The government would rather the prime minister represent Bucharest at EU summits.
“The government of Romania … will do its best to have a successful presidency,” Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu told reporters ahead of a ceremony marking the start of the presidency later on Thursday.
“It is not a project of a majority, or of a government, it is a country project for Romania after 10 years of participation in the EU.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said late last year the Romanian government “has not yet fully understood what it means to preside over EU countries.”
Melescanu downplayed the political infighting.
“It is obvious we have a political competition internally, which is quite normal in any democratic society. It is proof of very vivid democratic life in Romania,” he said.
Romania’s Minister for European Affairs George Ciamba said Romania was ready to handle the presidency but the political dispute in Bucharest was unlikely to end.
“Presidency or not, this is not going to stop,” Ciamba said.
“We have to acknowledge that we have European elections coming, so I think we are going to have politics all over Europe.”
While not formally under an EU monitoring procedure like Poland or Hungary, Romania has raised concern by its attempts to decriminalize several corruption offences and changes to the criminal codes.
The leader of the ruling social democrats, Liviu Dragnea, has convictions for vote rigging and abuse of office.
Dragnea’s convictions barred him from becoming prime minister and he has been pushing Prime Minister Viorica Dancila’s government for legal changes, including a decree that would grant prison pardons and amnesty, including for himself.
Reporting By Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Robin Pomeroy