Romania’s first-ever EU Presidency term is almost over, now it’s time to take stock. A few notes from me below.
While the government wanted to have the spotlight on the policy work its team is doing, its own actions at home made it impossible for anyone to avoid the drama and the politics.
The Presidency began with pressure from the PSD-led government on the judiciary, namely its leader Liviu Dragnea’s insistence to pass an amnesty bill for acts of corruption and other crimes - including some of which he himself was found guilty of.
For the most part of the past 6 months, Bucharest was at odds with the Commission over its actions to subdue the judiciary, while insisting it was doing nothing of the sort; the government also played the “Brussels is treating us unfairly” card quite heavily, again because of its shadow leader’s own inferiority complex and inability to make friends in Europe.
The PSD-ALDE government also continued its crusade against the notion that the country’s institutions should cooperate to combat graft - namely its intelligence services and judiciary.
The conflict peaked, arguably, with the European Parliament hearings of Laura Codruta Kovesi, Romania’s former Chief Prosecutor, now in the running for the newly established position of European Chief Prosecutor. On a shortlist of 3 candidates, Kovesi was ardently opposed by her country’s own government. Bucharest managed the performance of effectively blocking its own candidate’s nomination in the Council through backroom lobbying, once again because of Liviu Dragnea’s personal agenda (which other PSD leaders, of course, supported - even if now they disavow him).
Kovesi, however, gained widespread popularity across Europe and, at home, she became an even greater symbol of Romania’s anti-corruption struggle.
Dragnea himself is now in prison over his 3rd corruption sentence (one of the magic numbers, of course). Since then - and since the election defeat suffered by PSD, which we’ll return to - the Viorica Dancila government turned on its heels, becoming one of the most ardently pro-European governments in the region, if we’re to take them at their word. According to Dancila, this government has always been pro-European and there was never any intention to pass executive orders to subdue the judiciary, and we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.
Opposition leader Dacian Ciolos echoed many Romanians’ suspicions when he said that this government should only be taken at face value once it’s resigned.
Right before January, the government also issued an executive order (which, incidentally, is the only way PSD knows how to govern these days, after losing absolute majority in Parliament and being shaken in confidence by waves of massive popular protests); the order levied extra taxes on banks and energy companies. This was done, as usual, without a previous impact study, and will have a heavy negative effect on the economy in the medium to long term. The opposition should prepare to have to deal with the fallout of PSD’s excesses and incompetence when it eventually takes power, because PSD will point the finger at them if and when inflation hits and large companies decide to pull out of the country.
Speaking of the opposition, two relatively new parties, USR (The Save Romania Union) and PLUS have surged in visibility and popularity over the past couple of years, with a distinct uptick over the course of the EU Presidency. This happened on the back of several trends, including:
PSD’s unpopularity (and the unpopularity and lack of charisma of its leader in particular)
a still-strong anti-corruption streak in Romania’s electorate
a broader pro-EU backlash to Euroscepticism
They registered strong numbers in the EP elections - under one banner, that of Alliance 2020, which now has 8 MEPs, the same as PSD (who will gain 1 seat after the post-Brexit readjustment), and only 2 behind the winner, PNL.
The opposition also mobilised voters thanks to a referendum on the country’s anti-corruption trajectory which was announced by President Klaus Iohannis and was held on the same day as the EP elections. It motivated people to get out and vote, and the final turnout was just under 50%, the strongest ever so far and among the highest in Europe - even with egregious cases of systemic voter suppression across the diaspora (for which the elections organisers, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, have refused to take any responsibility).
On the justice referendum, voters sent a strong message against the current government and their attempts to undermine the rule of law.
The opposition should now bear in mind that they will need to work twice as hard to hold on to voters who came out to punish PSD rather than necessarily voting *for* A2020 (or PNL).
Alliance 2020 is now an important player in the newly formed / renamed liberal parliamentary group Renew Europe; Dacian Ciolos, one of the alliance’s leaders - a former Agri Commissioner and Prime Minister - might even become the head of Renew, after Macron’s point guard, Nathalie L’Oiseau, dropped out because of a media scandal.
Meanwhile, the day after the elections, a Bucharest court issued a final sentence in a Liviu Dragnea case; Dragnea is now in prison for the next 3 and a half years for fictitious hires. Since then, PM Dancila has become emboldened, starting to define a voice of her own after months of working in Dragnea’s shadow. She is trying to reassure European partners that she leads a pro-EU government committed to the common good and the rule of law. The government has also dropped the self-victimisation and populist rhetoric it has been using increasingly since 2017. As mentioned before, PSD’s populist play failed in large part because of how deeply unpopular and uncharismatic Dragnea was - which is always a risk when you personalise power.
It’s also worth taking note of the political revival of former PM Victor Ponta. He resigned in 2015 in the wake of the Colectiv fire and massive street protests and has kept a low profile, biding his time for spirits to calm down. His new party, ProRomania, now has 2 MEPs and he’s attempting his own rebranding as a pro-EU political player. His credibility among European partners remains low, however, and he was not invited into Renew, which he had hoped to join.
A lot has changed in Romanian politics. The country now has a real liberal opposition with a strong pro-Europe message, and there is a sense of optimism about the future which wasn’t there before. I would trace it back to a catastrophic fire in 2015.
The Colectiv disaster galvanised public anger and discontent with how prevalent corruption was both in politics and society. It was a wedge moment for Romania:
In the very short term, it sparked massive street protests which pressured the Ponta government to step aside
Then, Dacian Ciolos was appointed to lead a technocratic government; many of its members went on to join USR or PLUS, with government experience now to boot
It boosted the visibility and popularity of these 2 parties, which had a strong anti-corruption message
It forced members of the civil society to take a step forward and do the unthinkable - enter the political arena, often avoided because, as the saying goes, you don’t wrestle with a pig; you get dirty and, besides, the pig enjoys it
It was the beginning of the end for PSD’s choke hold on Romania. While the ride has been bumpy and uneven, the country’s democratic and pro-European outlook has never been brighter, and we can trace it all back to a 2015 catastrophe which sent angry shock waves through society and made Romanians fully understand that “Corruption Kills”.
In light of all of this, I’d rate Romania’s EU Presidency as a success mainly for highlighting the contrast between the “old politics” and the pro-EU, pro-rule of law aspirations and potential of the new political generation. This contrast was especially striking while the spotlight was shining bright on Romania.