Wednesday, September 19, 2012

WSJ: Romanian President For Summit

By Laurence Norman

It was the catalyst that kicked off the summer war of words between Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his political nemesis President Traian Basescu.

After parliament voted to send Mr. Ponta to the June meeting of the European heads of government in Brussels, the constitutional court struck that decision down, saying it was the president who should attend. Mr. Ponta went anyway, denouncing the court as the puppet of the president and triggering a battle that culminated in the failed effort to impeach Mr. Basescu on July 29.

In Romania, there are few signs the battle between Romania’s two dominant politicians is dying down. Indeed, many fear tensions will escalate between Mr. Ponta’s center-left camp and Mr. Basescu’s center-right group ahead of parliamentary elections in December.

Still, in Brussels at least, the two men are trying to show they’ve moved on, officials say. The most concrete sign of this so far is a deal on who will represent the country at next month’s heads of government summit.

According to a senior official in Brussels, Mr. Ponta told European Commission President José Manuel Barroso during a meeting in Brussels on Monday that he is okay with Mr. Basescu coming to the summit. An official close to the Romanian government confirmed the information. Mr. Basescu was in Brussels for meetings last Friday.

At the commission, even these limited signs of cooperation come as a relief after the political trench warfare over the summer.

There was exasperation here over the fight between the two men, which rocked investor confidence in Romania, hitting the currency and domestic asset markets and leading Brussels to warn that many years of democratic progress in the country was at risk.

“There’s quite a similar pattern emerging in that both say they want to look ahead and learn from what happened,” a Brussels source said. “There’s recognition that what happened has really done damage.”

The person said the ebbing of the political conflict has allowed Brussels to put back atop the agenda efforts to improve Romania’s take-up of European Union structural funds. At the moment, Romania has absorbed just 9.7% of the €19.2 billion earmarked for it in the current 2007-13 budget period. Romania currently has the lowest take-up rate in the 27-nation bloc.

Still, real doubts remain over whether Messers Basescu and Ponta have agreed to anything more than brief and overseas-based truce.

Back home, the two men continue to attack each other vociferously in the press. Mr. Basescu recently suggested that the people who organized his impeachment – which he called a “failed coup” – should be “held responsible before state institutions.”

And while Mr. Ponta enjoys friendly chats in Brussels with Mr. Barroso, people close to him continue to fulminate against Brussels’ “extraordinarily biased approach” during the political crisis.

Even on the issue of who should attend the heads of government summit, the wounds are fresh.

“Mr. Ponta doesn’t want to create any conflicts with the president,” the Romanian official said. “However, it’s absolutely obvious from a European perspective that the person who should attend the European Council is the prime minister. It is all about economic matters. The president has absolutely no competence on that.”

Gordon Fairclough contributed to this article.

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