Bridge over troubled waters

Romania assumes its first EU Presidency at a critical moment in the Union’s history. Elizabeth Stewart spoke to Romanian Ambassador Dan Mihalache about how Romania will be a bridge-builder in what is billed to be an eventful six months.

Entering the office of Ambassador Dan Mihalache, one thing strikes you: antique maps – large and small, charting the ever-changing territory of Romania.

“I am obsessed with maps,” smiles the Ambassador, who spends what little free time he has browsing London’s antiquarian map shops.

Being at the crossroads of rival empires – Dacian, Roman, Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian – means Romania has been, until only recently in its 2000-year history, “on contested ground,” as the Ambassador describes it.

Great for cartophiles like Mihalache; perhaps not so great for those caught in the middle. “Sometimes it’s simpler to be an island like the UK,” he laughs. Although things seem far from simple in Britain right now, as it prepares to withdraw from the European Union, changing the borders of the EU and consigning itself to a greyed-out blot on the map.

Brexit complications
How (or indeed if) Britain exits the EU – with or without a deal – is likely to “complicate” the Presidency agenda, admits Mihalache. On the evening his Embassy hosted its Presidency Launch with an intense, dramatic (and at times dissonant) performance of George Enescu by the European Youth Orchestra, there was drama in Parliament as MPs voted down the Prime Minister’s deal, inflicting the heaviest defeat in modern times.

After the concert, EU ambassadors huddled around to compare notes over a glass of fine Romanian red. It was a foretaste of the meetings that the Ambassador will convene over the next few months, where baffled EU Ambassadors try to make sense of latest twists in the Brexit saga.

“We are working on several scenarios which could happen under our Presidency. There could be several developments which we cannot predict or forecast – including postponing the triggering of Article 50 which will require multilateral negotiations because the members of the EU have to agree. And then the question will be for how long do you postpone?”

Some Ambassadors after the concert agreed that Britain had “edged closer” to a no-deal Brexit and debated the potential fallout, for the economy, trade and, in particular, the three million EU citizens living in Britain.

Among the Romanian maps on Ambassador’s office is an intriguing map of Britain – festooned with colourful thumbtacks. These, the Ambassador explains, represent various associations of Romanians living in the UK, from students, to churches and business groups. It provides him with an instant visual snapshot of his community.

What will Brexit – especially a no-deal Brexit – mean for those half a million Romanian citizens indicated on the map?

“I am not so pessimistic. I believe that in the future their status will not change; for those who have the proper credentials to live and work here,” says the Ambassador, whose priority will be to assist those Romanians wishing to obtain Settled Status “although the online system doesn’t seem to be working properly at the moment…” he adds with a wry smile.

“Brexit does not seem to be influencing their decision to come and work here… Britain needs this workforce, and this need will be stronger than legislative barriers. People come here to earn money but British industries need this labour so it’s a win-win.”

Looking beyond March 29, the Ambassador has a simple message for Britain: “We have valued our partnership with the UK; we have good coordination in many areas especially in foreign policy, defence, intelligence exchange, security and we want this to continue. So we will be a big supporter of keeping the UK very close to the EU – for us it is a loss that the UK will not be at the European decision table but you can count on our support to make this relationship go very well in the future.”

Budget negotiations
If Brexit is the first ‘B’ of the Romanian Presidency, budget negotiations (or ‘Multi-Annual Financial Framework’ in Eurospeak) is the second ‘B’. For this round of negotiations, the EU will have to adapt to the loss of its third largest net contributor.

“This will be difficult. Britain’s departure will mean there is less money and the budget will have to be readjusted and the priorities have to be readjusted. There is pressure for more defence spending, correlated with NATO and probably redefining the relationship between the EU and the US,” says the Ambassador.

But more spending on defence and securing the EU’s borders inevitably means less for the Common Agricultural Policy and Cohesion Funds. Unpopular decisions may fuel populist sentiment across the EU.

‘New forces’ in European elections
This is likely to affect the third big ‘B’ of the Romanian Presidency: the ballot. European Parliamentary elections take place in May and the Ambassador, who spent 10 years as one of the first Romanian MEPs and understands the institution well, predicts a much more “fragmented” Parliament.

“The EU Parliament has functioned for decades on the balance between the right and left; between the European People’s Party and the Party of European Socialists but now I believe it will be more complicated …There will be a lot of new forces that will come into the EU Parliament, which means coalition building, negotiations and debates which will also, in my opinion, be reflected in the composition of the future European Commission.”

So, against the backdrop of these fast-moving events, it is apt that the motto of the Romanian Presidency is Cohesion. “You cannot be a strong Europe without cohesion,” says Mihalache.

Underpinning the concept of cohesion are four pillars. The first is convergence: “That means reducing development gaps, consolidating the single market and promoting innovation,” explains the Ambassador. The second pillar is security, “because an unsafe Europe is a weak Europe”. Thirdly Europe needs up its game and be competitive to remain an influential global actor on an equal footing with other powers. And finally, Europe needs to rededicate itself to the common values which are at its foundation.

Bridge builder
As a member state on the Eastern periphery of the EU, Romania would also like to extend a hand to Europe’s eastern neighbours – Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine and the Balkans to the Southeast.

Bringing us to the final ‘B’ of the Romania’s first EU Presidency: bridge-building. “Romania will act as a fair broker in these debates,” concludes Ambassador Mihalache. “They won’t be simple but you can count on us being a fair friend, trying to build a better future for a stronger Europe.”