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Romania and its citizens are strongly determined to contribute to the enhancement of the European project, based on the observance of the EU fundamental values and principles, during the period of exercising the Romanian presidency of the Council of the European Union, the permanent representative of Romania to the European Union, Ambassador Luminita Odobescu says in an interview with AGERPRES.

The diplomat says it is paramount that the Romanians feel that "this European project belongs to them", showing that a period full of challenges in both logistic and as regards the European agenda is ahead of us. "The rotating presidency assumes often the adjustment to unexpected, quick reactions and sustainable solutions," she adds.

"Our country's mandate is for and about the citizens, having at its core their expectations regarding the European Union, and also Romania's role within the community project. (...) We are talking about over 1,.600 technical reunions and rd 50 ministerial reunions that are taking place in Brussels, alongside other promotion events, to which the ones organized in Romania add, it is a huge logistic effort of the entire public administration in Romania. A true diplomatic marathon will be, during which we wish to present to our European partners, and not only, to the European bodies' representatives, an ambitious, creative and modern Romania, deeply attached to the European project," Luminita Odobescu adds.

In her opinion, a momentum of the Romanian presidency of the EU Council will be the Summit in Sibiu, on 9 May that will be dedicated to the EU future and the new strategic Agenda of the EU leaders. The Sibiu summit is preceding the European election, when the citizens will state their options and decide upon the course of the European Union for the next 5 years.

Moreover, the permanent representative of Romania to the EU emphasizes that the accession of our country to the Schengen Space stays an important political target and that a positive decision will bring real advantages to the European Union, thus contributing to the increase of its capacity to give a better answer to the current security challenges, considering Romanian's excellent expertise in this field.

Referring to the effective exit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the EU, due to take place during Romania's term at the wheel of the EU Council, the Romanian diplomat says that although the UK is preparing to leave, the deep cooperation in the future, the profoundness of the historical connections and the common values shared are contouring the landmarks of an important future relationship for both London and Brussels.

In connection with the future of the European Union, Luminita Odobescu points out that unity must remain the gist of the European project and the force that should allow the challenges' overcoming that have affected the EU in its decades of existence.

Likewise, the Romanian ambassador believes it important for the business milieu in Romania to be much more present within the various European associations so to be able to promote better its interests.

AGERPRES: For the first time since its accession to the European Union, Romania is ensuring as of 1 January the half-year presidency of the Council of the European Union. In your opinion, what are the main challenges our country will be confronted with in this capacity, the diplomatic representation you are coordinating, in particular?

Luminita Odobescu: The presidency of the Council of the European Union is an important moment for Romania, and yet a chance to show that together with the other European states, it is possible to transform the challenges the Union is confronted with, into opportunities. This is the clearest message we wish to convey - that our country and its citizens are strongly determined to contribute to the enhancement of the European project, based on the observance of the EU fundamental values and principles. It is paramount that the Romanians feel that this European project belongs to them. Our country's term is for and about the citizens, having at its core their expectations regarding the European Union and Romania's role within the community project.

From where we stand, we are working, as much as we could, to guarantee consensus at European level, pursuing pragmatic, bold, yet realistic priorities. The Romanian presidency of the EU Council has at its heart the idea of cohesion, a larger sense cohesion, of unity and curtailment of the differences and gaps of economic, social and territorial development. The priorities of the Romanian presidency of the EU Council are grouped on four pillars:

Firstly, the Europe of Convergence, with an accent on increase, cohesion, competitiveness, connectivity, cut of the development gaps, employment and social rights. From this perspective, we shall pursue to move forward with the negotiations within the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework, by maintaining the importance given to the cohesion policy and to the common agricultural policies and equally we shall support the durable development through digitization, research and innovation. The interconnection and the climate changes are also on the presidency's agenda.

Secondly, a Safer Europe with an accent on certain topics, such as ensuring the EU internal security, enhancing the external borders' protection (we are talking here, for instance, about the consolidation of the FRONTEX operational capacity, along other EU organisations and agencies' that are dealing with the borders' management), the security of the Schengen Space or the cyber security.

Thirdly, we are talking about Europe as a Stronger Global Actor, with a focus on the near vicinity, such as the Eastern Partnership, includingly through the fact that during this mandate we'll celebrate 10 years since the launch of this partnership. Likewise, Romania will give a special attention to supporting the European perspective of the Western Balkans, aiming to imprint a new breath to the enlargement policy, as grounds of ensuring stability and prosperity in the region. Among the priorities of this pillar we also count the consolidation of the Common Security and Defence Policy and the efficiency of the external actions of the EU.

Fourthly is Europe of Common Values, in particular in context of the election for the European Parliament this May, when we need to bring the decisions from Brussels closer to the citizens.

A central moment of our presidency is the Summit in Sibiu, on 9 May that will be dedicated to the future of the EU and to the new strategic Agenda of the EU leaders. The summit in Sibiu is preceding the European election, when the citizens will express their options and will decide upon the course of the Union for the next 5 years.

During our presidency we expect a busy period, full of challenges in both logistic and as regards the European agenda's plan. We are talking about over 1,600 technical reunions and rd 50 ministerial reunions due in Brussels, along other promotion events, to which add those organized in Romania, it is a huge logistic effort of the entire public administration in Romania. It will be a true diplomatic marathon, the length of which we wish to present to our European partners, and not only, to the representatives of the European bodies, a bold, creative, modern Romania deeply attached to the European project. To me, personally, and to the team of the Permanent Representation in Brussels, the following period is special, since we are aware of our responsibilities.

Moreover, the presidency of the EU Council is not only to chair reunions, to try to find solutions or negotiations with the European Parliament in the name of the Council, and on the other member states' behalf, it is not only planned events in the minutest details. The rotating presidency involves, many times, the adjustment to the unexpected, quick reactions and sustainable solutions. I trust the Bucharest team and the team of the Permanent Representation of Romania in Brussels will successfully do these challenges.

AGERPRES: What will be Romania's role as president of the EU Council in the first half of 2019 in the enlargement process of the community bloc towards the Western Balkans, a sensitive region when it comes to stability and security?

Luminita Odobescu: Like I said, the support for the Western Balkans will be one of Romania's priorities during its rotating presidency of the EU Council. Besides, the Western Balkans are a EU level priority as well, a fact confirmed by the strategy for "A credible perspective of adhesion for the Western Balkans and an increased commitment for the EU in the region" as adopted by the European Commission in February 2018. The strategy also highlights that the EU must be ready to welcome new members, the time they will meet the criteria. The document, that technically drawing the European path of the Western Balkans confirms the European perspective of the region as a geo-strategical investment in a stable, strong, united Europe, based on common values.

On the agenda of the Romanian presidency of the EU Council will stay the negotiations regarding the next package of enlargement that is to be presented by the European Commission. Romania has constantly advocated the furthering and the boosting of the EU enlargement policy. In order to ensure this process's continuity, the enlargement is also a priority on the agenda of our presidencies' Trio, with Finland and Croatia.

AGERPRES: In the first half of this year the effective exit of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the EU will take place. What will be the impact of this event as regards the both functioning and current businesses of the community bloc, as well as the presence of Romania in the European Union?

Luminita Odobescu: Romania is taking over the presidency of the EU Council in a crucial moment, of huge changes for the future of the European project. The withdrawal of the UK from the EU is a multiple-valence moment - on the one hand, we have a moment of regret, but it is the British people's will and we respect that, and on the other hand, the consolidation process of the European construction will go on in the 27-member states' formula, motivated by the perspective of a future when we could capitalize the incredible potential of the European project that is, let's not forget, a project of peace, prosperity and resilience.

Although the UK is preparing to leave, the future deepened cooperation, the profoundness of the historical connections and the common values shared, do outline the landmarks of a future relationship, both important for London and Brussels. As a president of the EU Council, Romania proposes to advocate the fast kick off of the process towards the inking of a comprehensive partnership, capable to reflect the above-mentioned aspects.

From a national perspective, within all the meetings of the Romanian officials with the British authorities, it was reiterated the commitment of the British gov't to observe its assumed obligations in the first stage of the negotiations, to offer certain sure guarantees as regards the rights of the European citizens and their families, included. As you all know, at the special reunion of the European Council Art. 50 of November 2018, the withdrawal Agreement of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the EU was endorsed, and the political Declaration on the future relations' framework was approved, a statement that is proposing an ambitious partnership and a tight relation with the UK for the future.

Important is to mention that the objectives pursued by Romania during the negotiation process were being attained, mainly those that aim to protect the rights of the Romanian citizens established in the UK. The agreement says that the citizens of the 27 member states who are in the UK and the British citizens who live in the EU member states who benefit it (including those who settle in the EU27/UK in the transition period) will enjoy a series of rights. These rights include the right to stay in the United Kingdom of the EU citizens and their family members, as well a aspects regarding the coordination of the social security systems, the professional qualifications, the medical care. It is important that the exit agreement be ratified by the Parliament in London, so to ensure from the judicial point of view all of these rights.

AGERPRES: The European Union's reform, which has been discussed so much in particular after the election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France, could focus on the interests of developed countries in the Eurozone. In this context, how should Romania position itself to avoid the tendency of 'peripheralization' of the member countries of the Eastern bloc?

Luminita Odobescu: The idea of cohesion, sustainable development and reduction of development gaps between member states lies at the heart of the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Economic, social and territorial convergence is a challenge for the EU in the current political context where we are confronted with an erosion of citizens' trust in the European project.

That is why unity must remain our guiding principle, the essence of the European project, and the force that enables us to meet the challenges that have affected the Union in its decades of existence. The ambitions of improving this project should not be interpreted exclusively in a fragmentation key. Ultimately, the sine qua non condition of the European project is the existence of common values that accompany us at every step. Ideas such as a Europe with peripheral areas cannot be a solution, as it would counter the EU's unitary and indivisible character, precisely what gives us value, credibility and consistency at the international level.

AGERPRES: In the first years of our country's accession to the European Union, there was a lack of a country lobbying from Romania in Brussels. The effects of this lack have been reflected in the inability to significantly influence EU decisions in their own national interest. What do you think should be done to change this situation both from the political decision makers in the country and from the Romanians in Brussels - diplomats, MEPs or Romanians working in European institutions or in the private sector?

Luminita Odobescu: Allow me to present you in another light that period of the first years after accession. Especially since in the period 2002-2007 I had the chance to be part of the team that took the steps to join, right here in Brussels. Efforts were consistent and lasting at all levels and at the level of all political decision-makers. Romania's application for accession to the European Union was officially submitted in 1995 by the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Teodor Melescanu, who held the portfolio of Romanian diplomacy at that time. Twelve years after joining the EU, Romania has consolidated its status both at European and Euro-Atlantic level as an EU member and NATO respectively. We can firmly affirm that Romania has had an important evolution in the European Union over the years.

The decision-making process in Brussels is complex, from the highest level to the Romanian members of the European Parliament, but also to the Romanian officials working in the European institutions. The Romanian presence in the capital of the European Union is an asset to Romania, an important communication channel. Where we feel the need to be more present is at events and seminars in Brussels where the future of European politics is discussed in particular. It is also important that the business environment in Romania is much more present in the various European associations so that they can better promote their interests.

AGERPRES: The European Commission has consistently stated in recent years that Romania and Bulgaria are ready to become members of the Schengen area. This accession has not taken place due to the opposition of some member states, such as France, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, in the context in which the decision should be adopted unanimously in the Council. When do you estimate that our country could be admitted into the European Free Trade Area?

Luminita Odobescu: Accession to the Schengen area remains an important political objective, including in order to enjoy the full benefits of deepening the European integration process. We have been meeting for some time the technical criteria needed to become a full member and have the solid support of the European Commission and the European Parliament. A positive decision would bring real benefits to the Union, helping to increase its capacity to respond better to current security challenges, taking into account Romania's excellent expertise in this area. Let us not forget that our country is already actively contributing to the security of the Union and strengthening the free movement of persons, guaranteeing security at the EU's external borders.

AGERPRES: Do you think that decisions at EU level that substantially affect Romania occupy sufficient space in the public debate in the country? In this context, how do you qualify the role of the Romanian press, in particular the current absence of a Romanian press body, solid in qualitative and numerical terms, accredited in Brussels?

Luminita Odobescu: Co-opting civil society to all stages of the preparation of the Romanian Presidency of the EU Council has been one of the constant ambitions and we believe that the Presidency has consolidated this link between the administration and the civil society, which we should be deepening more and more. Civil society is not just our discussion partner, it is also an important message multiplier, because the last step of the exercise we are currently doing in relation to the advancement of the European agenda is to make sure that the results of these efforts are known. Communication is a key element and, in order for the message to come as close as possible to the European public, we must capitalize on all the levers at the society level.
  
As far as the Romanian press in Brussels is concerned, we are confident that the presence of journalists interested in European affairs will grow in the Union's capital during the presidency. There are many topics that the Romanian public will be directly interested in, as a result of the presence of the Romanian press all over where important events take place is an element that creates a direct link between the Romanians at home and the European institutions, where Romania will hold for the next six months a role of maximum visibility.

AGERPRES: How does the Romanian Presidency of the Council of the European Union start?

Luminita Odobescu: The official opening moment of the presidency (Romanian Council of the EU) is represented by the visit of the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the College of Commissioners in Romania, on 10-11 January 2019. Here, in Brussels, it starts with a classical music concert that takes place at a symbolic date, January 24, 2019, hosted by BOZAR, a prestigious cultural institution in Brussels. During the presidency there will be numerous events, both in Bucharest, as well as in Brussels, and the working calendar of the Council chaired by Romania begins in January 7, 2019 with a meeting of ambassadors from the EU and on January 8 with the Council General Affairs.

I take this opportunity to send a good thought to all Romanians and to assure them of our sustained effort for the Romanian presidency of the EU Council to remain a milestone in the effort to strengthen the European project.AGERPRES(RO - author: Tudor Martalogu, editor: Mariana Ionescu; EN - authors: Bogdan Gabaroi, Maria Voican, editors: Maria Voican, Bogdan Gabaroi)

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