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Backstage drama accompanies Romania's debut in EU presidency

An anti-government protester adjusts his gloves outside the Romanian Atheneum concert hall in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019, the venue for an event marking the official start of the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
January 10, 2019 - 2:23 PM

BUCHAREST, Romania - Backstage drama came to the fore Thursday as Romania assumed the presidency of the European Union for the first time, an international debut that was preceded by questions about the country's readiness for the role.

The formerly communist country's turn in the rotating office brought EU officials to Bucharest as the president and prime minister fought over which of them would represent Romania at summits. Notably absent was the convicted politician who is assumed to be the one in charge. He is suing the EU over fraud allegations.

Apprehension was evident several times during an evening ceremony at an august concert hall where the start of Romania's six-month term was marked.

"It depends only on you whether for Europe, Romanian politics will be a good example or a dire warning," EU Council President Donald Tusk told his hosts during a speech delivered in the Romanian language.

As snow fell, hundreds of protesters outside the Antenaeum concert hall waved EU and Romanian flags while trying to put a spotlight on government corruption.

A light projector beamed a green message onto the palace where EU officials planned to dine, saying the protesters "want the EU" and Romania's ruling Social Democratic Party "wants Russia."

During the ceremony inside, politicians listened to an orchestra performing George Enescu's often intense and impulsive Romanian Rhapsody — and heard some bluntly worded speeches.

"As a reminiscence of the communist past, some institutions and decision-makers are still holding on to the unchecked power they have previously indulged in," the president of Romania's Senate, Calin Popescu Tariceanu said.

He did not specify the places and people he accused of claiming the same unaccountability they collectively enjoyed before 1989," the year communism fell in Romania.

Holding the EU presidency matters to the bloc's member nations, especially one like Romania that joined only a dozen years ago. The role requires keeping EU business flowing during the six-month term, but lacks the authority to block or undermine the communal business of the bloc.

Some Romanians say the events of recent weeks have made for a dysfunctional government. Others prefer to see it as evidence of a healthy democracy, which would be another relatively new situation in Romania.

"I see nothing unnatural," Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Melescanu said of the election year political infighting. "On the contrary, I see it as proof of very vivid democratic life."

It does make planning difficult.

Iohannis has been representing Romania at the summits of leaders of EU nations. Dancila recently challenged the practice, saying the prime minister should be at the summits as the head of government. Daily feuds have ensued.

For its presidency, Romania chose "Cohesion, a common European value" as its motto.

Another awkwardly timed problem arose Thursday, when word went public that the chairman of Romania's ruling party had sued the European Commission — led by Juncker.

Liviu Dragnea, the country's most powerful politician and de facto leader, brought the case to the European Court of Justice over allegations he defrauded the EU.

The European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, said 21 million euros ($24.15 million) was fraudulently paid to officials for road construction in Romania. The alleged misuse of funds from 2001-2012 were when he headed a county council in southern Romania.

Romania's anti-corruption prosecutors are investigating whether Dragnea set up an organized crime group with other officials and forged documents to illicitly obtain EU funds.

Dragnea is the only high-profile Romanian politician who will be absent from Thursday evening's opening ceremony. He is barred from being prime minister because of a conviction for vote-rigging.

Romania has received criticism from the EU in other areas. Under Dragnea's Social Democratic Party, the government embarked on a contentious overhaul of Romania's judicial system. The EU has opposed the changes, saying they could protect corrupt officials.

Asked about Dragnea's problems with the EU, Foreign Minister Melescanu said that "any person, even if he is a politician, is entitled to look for the legal possibilities to prove his innocence."

In another sign of the gridlock in Romania, the justice minister on Thursday asked Iohannis for a third time to appoint a regional prosecutor as chief of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate.

The president has already twice refused to appoint the minister's pick, saying she was legally disqualified because there was no guarantee she didn't collaborate with the Communist-era Securitate police.

The president also has rebuffed two of the prime minister's candidates for ministerial posts.

The country's political pedigree has given some in the EU a little apprehension about the Romanian presidency.

"The rest of Europe is watching," said Ska Keller, the president of the Greens/EFA group in the EU Parliament.

News from © The Associated Press, 2019
The Associated Press

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