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Romania: Bucharest Walking Tightrope Between U.S. And Europe As ICC Dispute Continues

Romania looks likely to postpone parliamentary debate on ratifying a bilateral agreement with Washington exempting U.S. personnel from prosecution by the International Criminal Court, or ICC. Romania's decision to sign the agreement triggered harsh criticism from the European Union, which opposes such bilateral deals. Bucharest now says it will wait until the EU and the United States settle their differences regarding the ICC -- something EU foreign ministers are attempting to do during their meeting today in Brussels. Analysts say Bucharest is attempting to mend the rift with the EU while preserving its good relations with the United States ahead of the NATO summit in November, where Romania hopes to secure an invitation to join the alliance.

Prague, 30 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Romania, a country in need of powerful friends, appears to be walking a delicate tightrope between Europe and the United States.

The Romanian parliament has postponed debate on the ratification of a bilateral treaty with the United States exempting U.S. personnel from prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

President Ion Iliescu now says debate will not proceed until the European Union member states reach a common position in their dispute with the United States over the ICC.

Nicolae Vacaroiu, speaker of the Romanian Senate (parliament's upper chamber), told RFE/RL that no date has yet been set for debating the bilateral treaty. "The answer is very simple: There is no such date; the agreement has not been sent to the Romanian parliament's two chambers, that is, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. We are expecting the completion of a common position between the U.S. and the European Union regarding this issue, the completion of negotiations between the U.S. and the EU," Vacaroiu said.

Romania is the only EU candidate so far to sign a bilateral agreement with the United States on the ICC, which Washington has staunchly resisted, fearing the international court would pose a threat to U.S. personnel serving throughout the world.

Bucharest's willingness to sign the U.S. agreement was seen as an attempt to drum up support for Washington for its NATO entry bid. The military alliance is meeting in November to decide which candidates will receive invitations, and Romania is considered a likely choice.

But Romania's bid to join the European Union has been more difficult. Along with Bulgaria, it is lagging far behind the other 10 candidates, and is not expected to be included in the union's 2004 expansion.

Bucharest's decision to sign the U.S. agreement in August drew strong criticism from European quarters, prompting fears that Romania's EU bid would be set back even further.

European Commission President Romano Prodi said the signing of the accord will not affect Romania's annual EU progress report, which is due to be released in early October. But Prodi also urged Bucharest to consult with the EU in the future before signing any such agreements.

The ICC has proved a divisive issue for the EU, with U.S. allies like Britain and Italy appearing more and more willing to strike a compromise with Washington over the court's jurisdiction. Washington has refused to ratify the Rome statute creating the ICC until it receives assurances that its service personnel will be immune from prosecution.

EU foreign ministers meeting today in Brussels appear to have inched closer to a common position. The ministers were expected to agree on a compromise under which individual EU member states could sign immunity agreements with the United States as long as the deals respect the ICC statute.

Under the deal, the U.S. would reportedly have to guarantee that Americans accused of abuses will be tried in their own country. The United States will also have to drop the demand for blanket exemptions.

As the United States and Europe jockey for advantage in the contentious ICC dispute, Romania may be trying to avoid being caught in the middle.

Analyst Steven Everts of the London-based Center for European Reform is an expert on U.S.-European relations. Everts told RFE/RL that Romania is correct not to proceed with the ratification of its agreement with Washington. "I think it's wise of the Romanians to say 'Well, we'll put the ratification of this bilateral treaty on hold while we try to contribute with the other European countries on how to handle this American request in a sensible and pragmatic manner.' It's wrong to go along with American requests for blanket exemptions, but maybe this compromise that's now being discussed -- of exempting only U.S. soldiers that operate under a [United Nations] mandate -- maybe that's a sensible way forward. And maybe Romania and other countries like it, both outside and inside the EU, won't have to choose between supporting either the U.S. or the EU," Everts said.

But some commentators say Romania was wrong in the first place, in rushing to sign the deal in hopes of gaining more U.S. support for its NATO bid.

Everts agrees that Bucharest's decision was hasty and was made without proper consultation with its EU partners. "Well, it would have been better, I think, for the overall image of the quality of the Romanian diplomacy if they had not signed this agreement so quickly. It would have been perfectly respectable for Romania to say: 'Well, America, listen, you have an interesting proposal. We want to study it carefully, but we also want to engage in discussions with our friends in the rest of Europe, among them very close friends of yours.' There are many countries inside the EU that want to be helpful to America as well, but [the Romanians] should have held off, I think, initially. There was no need to sign this agreement so quickly," Everts said.

But Romanian Senate speaker Vacaroiu defends the decision to sign the agreement. He said that in the absence of a common EU stance on the issue, Bucharest acted in its own best interest. "Romania above all pursued its national interest and its immediate priority of joining NATO. There were consultations. This agreement was signed in August. There were discussions with some EU officials -- of course, not talks of the highest level, because it was during the summer vacation. Romania did not violate the ICC statute. We signed this statute and analyzed it very carefully. There is an article which permits bilateral agreements. Besides, at the time, there was no common EU position on the issue; there was no interdiction," Vacaroiu said.

Vacaroiu said that if an EU position had existed, Romania would have acted differently.

Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, whose ministry signed the agreement with Washington, has declined to comment on the issue. "Pure and simple, for me the subject is closed. Since yesterday's [26 September] discussions with [European Commission President Romano] Prodi, the subject is closed and I'm not commenting on it at all," Geoana said.

Analyst Everts said that Bucharest, in postponing the ratification of the agreement with Washington, is not endangering its NATO bid. He said Romania can still prove its ability to contribute to continental security. "I think the Romanians can make a compelling case that their candidature for NATO membership rests on a broader philosophy of what NATO is for: spreading stability further eastwards on the European continent, the strategic role that Romania plays in promoting stability in the Balkans, et cetera, rather than focusing exclusively on how Romania does or does not behave in this particular instance of the ICC," Everts said.

Senate speaker Vacaroiu also said he believes that Romania has made a strong case for NATO membership. He said Bucharest, which has participated in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo and has sent troops to Afghanistan, already regards itself as a de facto NATO member.