Romania's presidency isn't a smooth one for a number of reasons. For one, taking over the rotating Council presidency in a European election year means that the European Parliament will be missing as one of the institutional partners from April on. During this reduced time, the country will then be asked to finish a number of major-league legislative projects, such as the development aid reform NDICI (Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument). Meanwhile, none of the planned projects, be it NDICI or InvestEU (the reformed investment mechanism of the EU), can be characterized as successes until they are apportioned in the 2021-2027 EU budget, which is set to be finalised during the upcoming Finnish presidency. In short: all of the work, none of the reward.
Adding insult to injury, Romania also belongs to the more controversial member states due to incidences of corruption and a crackdown on civil liberties in the wake of anti-government protests. While there were no legal changes to the right to protest, the prosecutors investigating alleged law enforcement violence during the summer protests, which has already resulted in indictments, are now themselves the targets of investigation. This raises serious suspicion in regards to the politicisation of the police violence inquiries.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker openly expressed his doubts about Romania's ability to successfully complete this Council presidency. But Romania's Prime Minister is hitting back: Viorica Dăncilă believes that Brussels is acting in accordance with a growing East-West double standard. Bucharest is pushing the narrative that countries in Central and Eastern Europe are held to different norms than those in the West. Dăncilă points to France, saying:
"It’s a double standard. I didn’t see anyone come to the European Parliament and say ‘We want a resolution on France'."
Her comments presumably address the loi anti-casseurs (anti-troublemakers law) recently passed by France's legislature. This bill gives law enforcement the right to search all protesters, places a €15,000 fine on those masking their faces, and establishes an administrative registry of people who have been stripped of their right to protest. Sure, Paris is justifying the measure in light of the very violent Yellow Vest protests, but we'll assume that every anti-government protest in Romania also doesn't occur without its fair share of broken windows and damaged cars. During last summer’s protests, over 400 people required medical assistance following violent demonstrations in Romania. The excuses are the same, but, for some reason, France isn't feeling the heat.
The comparison is a false equivalence: . while France has alleged corruption at the highest levels of political office, Romania has essentially legalised corruption, creating a strong case to censure Bucharest. Countries are also held to different standards for historical reasons. A strong Nazi presence in Slovakia would not be regarded with as much concern as would a strong Nazi presence in Germany. History leaves its mark. France might not be as reprehensible as Romania with regard to civil liberties violations ( such policies are complicated to compare), but the lack of condemnation doesn’t come from nowhere.
There is not even the slightest inclination to propose a resolution in the European Parliament in order to condemn Macron's crackdown on civil liberties. The reason is straightforward: countries need France for trade-offs in the European Council, or for policies unrelated to EU politics. While member states are supposed to be equal, there is no doubt that Realpolitik dampens the expectations of small member nations to be held to the same standards as the big guys. That isn't fair, and it's not what people were promised when they were sold on the concept of the EU. The game of "bigger economy and/or bigger population = more power" wasn't quite the formula to which the electorate agreed, regardless of whether they joined in the 50s or in 2007.
If we decide to condemn and sanction according to EU rules, then it's time to establish some consistency. In Luxembourg, we should be particularly watchful of the reality of the smaller country-bigger country relationship within the European Union.
Pictures are Creative Commons.