If you’ve met a single Romanian in your life, chances are you’ve learned of their people’s greatest enemy – the draft (curentul). Leave the window or door slightly ajar, and invariably there will be a draft threatening to lock up your lower back, give you headaches or colds, and generally just leave you in a poor predicament, health-wise.
The entire Romanian Council presidency has been one major illiberal and authoritarian draft, and Europe needs to pay attention if it cares about its health and future.
Whereas most analysts thought the PSD-ALDE coalition would behave with the spotlight on them, they have actually ratcheted up their assault of the justice system and on Romanian democracy itself
Terrified of what Kovesi at EU level might do to their criminal enterprises, they’ve lobbied EU governments hard in order to not vote for the Romanian candidate in COREPER. Without this lobby, Kovesi could have won the support of the Council, and would by now already be nominated as the first EPPO chief (after the Parliament affirmed its support for her).
They’ve passed one of the inanest executive orders right before the presidency began in order to quickly raise funds for the national budget, after raising salaries and pensions with no means of funding it earlier in their mandate. The infamous OUG 114 added blanket taxes across sectors without any public consultation or dialogue. This will cut investment across sectors.
They’ve passed another executive order on the judicial system, notably changing the national procedure for nominating EPPO candidates and instituting a new Section to investigate prosecutors and judges. This section is unaccountable except to PSD/ALDE and is their solution to taking over the justice system again (as it was pre-2004) in order to save high profile figures like Liviu Dragnea (but not just).
Notice how the government coalition is ruling by executive order, with no transparency, debate, or accountability.
Through the Electoral Committee, a body close to the ruling parties, it blocked the new opposition alliance USR PLUS, one of their main threats in the 3 upcoming elections which will determine whether Romania remains an EU democracy or is dragged back into a geopolitical no-mans-land between Brussels and illiberal forces from the East, be they Russian or Chinese. An appeal decision for USR PLUS is pending.
Meanwhile, the EPP is still deliberating what to do about Orban’s Fidesz. For similar abuses and manoeuvres, PSD is receiving a fraction of the attention Hungary and Poland did
The S&D is miming distaste for PSD’s actions but is in effect continuing to support them and their dismantling of Romania’s democracy. Timmermans talks a big game about supporting the rule of law, but so far his actions or lack thereof have been louder.
While the electoral commission’s decision is not final, PSD’s willingness to threaten the integrity of the European elections is further proof of how far they’re willing to go in order to not lose hold of power after having dropped in the polls from a regular 45-50% to a whopping 25%.
Turning a blind eye to PSD’s trampling of Romanian democratic norms and institutions will invariably come back to haunt European leaders. There can be no Europe without free elections and independent justice systems.
It’s been a while since we talked Romania’s presidency here, and that’s mostly because of my lack of time, but also because it’s become increasingly difficult to track the many ways in which the Romanian government is undermining its own goals for this chair stewardship.
Most notably, former DNA chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi was recently shortlisted for the position of chief prosecutor of the to-be-established European Public Prosecutor’s Office, a body which will investigate cases of large-scale corruption involving EU funds. This has arguably been one of the triggers for PSD/ALDE’s frantic scramble to take over the judiciary; Liviu Dragnea himself is involved in a high profile case currently with DNA, but which the Section for Investigating Magistrates has been trying to take over. The coalition’s fear is that an EPPO headed by Kovesi would have a vendetta against the people who dismissed her.
No matter who is appointed, the government will still be a target for the EPPO due to the high number of politicians involved in corruption cases. However, Kovesi would also serve as a rallying figure for Romanians who oppose PSD/ALDE and want a society based on the rule of law and firmly anchored in Europe. The effect of the symbolism of having the former DNA chief heading a major EU legal body is hard to underestimate.
But if you’ve been out of the loop and want to catch up, Estonia’s International Center for Defense and Security has an excellent analysis out, probably the best English-language piece I’ve seen so far, which I highly recommend you read in full here to get up to speed: source.
Last week, former PM and EU Commissioner Dacian Ciolos was accused of shady ‘ties to the former Securitate.’ Historian Marius Oprea claimed in an article that a former intelligence officer, Alexandru Iordache, was behind the official registration of Ciolos’ party, PLUS, and thus this collaboration wholly discredits Ciolos & his party.
While Ciolos did not directly deny this, he claims the link is spurios, as Iordache’s son was involved in registering PLUS, and that the former does not have any role within the organisation. Ciolos was criticised for his weak response in a Facebook post which cast doubt in the minds of many, including potential sympathisers.
It looks to be yet another dirty, or at least muddy, situation that can be directly traced back to Romania’s failure to properly come to terms with 1989 and, most importantly, to conduct an overhaul of its intelligence services, whose extensive reach is almost the stuff of legends within the public consciousness. Even opponents of PSD concede that the power and opacity of the country’s intelligence services are a noxious mix with direct impact on public life.
That these accusations of ties to intelligence services only surface now, as the opposition is revving up for the next couple of years of elections, is not surprising. Romania, as many EU countries are nowadays, is also fertile ground for disinformation, with the lack of trust in government and public administration compounded by citizens’ lack of trust in each other.
What’s more, PSD has been talking about a “parallel state” for years now, and the latest attack fits the populist narrative perfectly: ‘we are the only option, the opposition is either bought by foreigners/Soros or in the grasp of illegitimate parallel power structures.’
To me, this episode raises concerns over the state of the opposition and its ability to withstand a battle-hardened and savvy PSD in the election period to come. This most recent attack has the potential to hound Ciolos, while his relatively muted response could be seen as an example of how not to communicate, as it raised more questions instead of being a forceful rejection of the narrative PSD is pushing; a good opportunity to stress that the opposition is not funded from abroad or used as a front by occult interests was wasted. At the end of the day, there are thousands of people working to make these 2 new opposition parties (PLUS and USR) work, to imply like the original article mentioned above does, that they're a way for the old Securitate to refresh its image is ludicrous and insulting.
The good news is that the government coalition is scared enough of the prospect of Ciolos as a candidate (he’s announced he’s standing in the EP elections which he might use as a stepping stone to a Presidential or internal parliamentary elections) to play this card. As an aside, if you’d like to read more about the source of the attack, try this (in Romanian).
Regardless, and at the risk of being accused of once again proposing a negative vote (voting against something rather than for), Romania needs to prepare to vote in May if it wants to push back on the populist narrative promoted by the government coalition. Also if doesn’t want more Viorica Dancilas (a former MEP) in the European Parliament.
Anyway. Here’s a good (no, great!) example of how to communicate and how to do digital diplomacy: Sweden’s MFA.
In part to do with the MFA’s central strategy, in part to do with the personal efforts of the former Deputy Head of Mission, Alexandre Peyre, the Swedish Embassy in Romania has pretty much become the gold standard when it comes to digital diplomacy and public engagement by foreign missions.
Here, they take the #10yearchallenge and use it to poke gentle, collegial fun at Romania’s infrastructure struggles. I’d say this is better than repeating the word cohesion every 5 minutes because you’ve just learned what it means and want to show it off.
One of the things I keep repeating here (and everywhere, really) is that PSD is a populist party run by populist leaders. To me, it’s self-evident.
However, when looking at media coverage around the phenomenon of populism in Europe, PSD – and Romania in a broader sense – almost never gets a mention. At a quick glance, you’ll find no mentions of Romania in any of these items:
As you can see, populism is one of the big topics today and yet there is no mention of Romania. I am still trying to figure out why this is. Is it because the ruling party is nominally left wing, and as such falls in the blind spot of analysts who overwhelmingly equate the radical right with populism? Is it self-inflicted – i.e. is Romania punching below its weight politically and thus is not as relevant? Or is it that populism has been a defining feature of Romanian politics for so long, and just as present in incumbent and opposition parties, that people don’t take note of it anymore?
To begin with, we should establish what we mean by ‘populism.’ If it’s simply defined as ‘appealing to the people,’ that’s far too broad and leads us nowhere nearer to untangling the mess (for an in-depth look at this, I recommend Michael Shafir’s 2008 article From Historical to “Dialectical” Populism: The Case of Post-Communist Romania).
Populism thinking is Manichean: on the one hand you have a virtuous and homogenous people, and on the other you have a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who supposedly deprive or attempt to deprive the people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice. There is very little in terms of middle ground: you’re either on the side of the people or, at best, equivocating for the elites as they plot nefariously.
Populist leaders often mobilise support by claiming to be the personal embodiment of popular grievances.
Populism can exist both in government and outside of it
Populism can be grassroots and be led from the top
Not all populism is necessarily radical right
As Michael Shafir explains at length, populism in Romania changed in the previous decade, with former president Traian Basescu a key figure in stoking its fire. During Basescu’s tenure, we can observe both a form of populism that comes from below (Shafir’s example is Gigi Becali’s short-lived but consequential adventure into politics) and one that is managed from above.
The latter is the more interesting of the two, as it was validated and legitimized by a handful of intellectual elites which decided to support Basescu and his initiatives due to his strong backing of a 2006 report on the crimes of the communist regime; Basescu called communism in Romania “illegal and criminal,” and figures such as Horia-Roman Patapievici, Vladimir Tismaneanu, Gabriel Liiceanu, and others were unwavering in support of him for most of his tenure afterwards (under the umbrella of GDS – the Group for Social Dialogue – thought by many including itself to have been the voice of the civil society in Romania in the ‘90s; that monopoly has been broken in the past few years as the country’s civil society went through a bit of a forced renaissance).
This elite group, together with Basescu, advanced the narrative that the president was engaged in a fight with the ‘old system’ made up of corrupt parties, for the benefit of regular people. Basescu had previously belonged to the same system as transport minister, MP, and mayor of Bucharest. However, in 2003, he became a co-chairman of a center-right platform, the Alliance for Justice and Truth (comparisons with PiS will have to wait for now) which allowed him to re-position as fighting the system. The platform eventually carried him to the presidency in 2004.
He cultivated a likable, relatable persona: a former sailor known for plain speaking, stinging humor, and even enjoying a drink or two. He continues today as an opposition MP.
The point being that populism is not just a staple of PSD but has been a core feature of Romanian politics for decades. But let’s return and look what I mean when I say that the party and its Dear Leader are populists – and as such should be included in every single analysis on European populism.
Liviu Dragnea is fighting his personal crusade against the justice system by re-framing it as a national struggle between obscure forces of the system – the ‘parallel state,’ a term adopted from Erdogan – and the people. The system is not just domestic but coordinated from abroad by devious figures like… George Soros. When mass protests took place in 2017 against PSD’s attacks on the justice system, the party and its media outlets claimed Soros was paying these protesters (and their pets; this quickly became the subject of ridicule by protesters).
It is convenient that he already has two criminal sentences: he then becomes the embodiment of this struggle, a folk hero directly targeted by intelligence agencies and prosecutors because he had the courage to speak up for the common man. At times it’s ridiculous – like when he claimed assassins had been sent to Bucharest by Soros to take him out, an outrageous comment he failed to provide evidence for – but for the most part the narrative has been solidified domestically.
So what? – you might ask. Well, Dragnea’s populism is becoming more and more virulent. His recent speech to the party where he denounced foreign companies for leeching off the wealth of the country quickly became policy through a hastily passed government emergency decree. This is all to do with him being convinced that he has a great shot at beating Iohannis in the 2019 presidential elections. To do so, he needs to push the story that he is the real Romanian standing up for the people against foreigners (and PSD has not been shy at attacking Iohannis for being part of an ethnic German minority). The groundwork has long been prepared and things will get much nastier.
Back to the original question – why is Romania not included in analyses of populism in Europe? One suggestion put forward by Cas Mudde is that Romanian politics is just too hard to follow: it’s been defined by continued personal fights by prominent political features and political splintering, making it difficult to pin down.
My take is that because populism has been a staple of in-power groups for so long, it is not nearly as exciting as the populism of insurgent political forces in the rest of Europe. The prevailing narrative is that populism is destabilizing the continent because it threatens the status quo. In Romania, populism IS the status quo, which makes it harder to fit into that narrative.
But, with three major elections coming up in the next two years, we need to have a much better understanding of how populism works in Romania, how it relates to the broader European trend, and what the best ways are to combat its noxious influences.
I know it’s Christmas and should be focused on entirely different things, but below is a quick note on what’s happening in Bucharest under the cover of the holidays, as the country is preparing to take over the EU Council presidency.
Last week, right as people were starting to switch off and get ready for Christmas, the government announced and passed a set of new taxes through emergency decree.
The decree affects over 40 existing laws and threatens to blow up the entire economy.
It affects telecommunications, energy, banking, and more. The banking system section is actually referred to in the decree as ‘the tax on greed’. Previously, Liviu Dragnea had lashed out viciously at foreign companies in general, and those operating in banking, telecoms, and energy in particular, accusing them of not paying their fair share to the state and cheating “the people.”
As per the AP:
Romania's government on Friday passed an emergency ordinance to levy extra taxes on banks and energy companies, the same day that Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz suggested the measures could lead to foreign companies pulling out of Romania.
Hours after Kurz made his remarks, Finance Minister Eugen Teodorovici announced the government had issued a decree to remedy a fiscal shortfall that risked exceeding the EU's limit of 3 percent of GDP. The measures included new taxes on banks, energy and telecommunication companies and a cap on natural gas prices.
After taking over the government (again) in late 2016, PSD, together with their partners ALDE, announced public sector salary and pension increases. At the time, there were plenty of critics pointing out that Romania’s budget could not sustain these increases without reform measures; there simply was no money to do it. But PSD brushed it off in order to pander to their base.
Fast forward to today, they finally understood the impact of their decision. According to the Constitution, an emergency decree needs to contain a justification for its urgency. This one mentions that, without the new taxes, the budget deficit for 2019 would break the 3% threshold. If Romania’s economy is booming, like the government asserted for the better part of 2 years, why are we all of a sudden faced with the prospect of a deficit over 3% of GDP?
>3% would also put Bucharest in a delicate position: take over the Council presidency while potentially facing criticism or even an infringement procedure from Brussels for breaking the budget rules (see recent case with Italy).
Is this decree a silent admission that they were wrong? Of course not, The Party is never wrong. It’s the foreign bankers and multinational companies that are to blame. PSD has reviewed its options and decided to double down on the anti-foreigner, anti-corporation, populist card: ‘we’re taking from the rich oppressors to give to the poor people’.
Another point I’ve been insisting on in this blog is that PSD has plummeted in opinion polls since the 2016 elections. Add this as a compounding factor affecting their questionable decision-making.
In other words, PSD is desperate. They’re losing support, they have no real friends abroad, and their own economic policies have left a hole in the country’s budget, which they’ve decided to plug in the most heavy-handed, economically inept fashion (in purely Romanian style, there was no impact study conducted prior to Friday’s emergency decree).
I, for one, am looking forward to the PM going to Brussels soon and explaining the need for the decree, the impact of the measures, and the rhetoric or economic nationalism.
Meanwhile, the Romanian Permanent Representation is shooting videos of traditional Christmas dishes. The contrast between the chaos and drama at home and the priorities of the team handling the presidency is as delicious as my mom’s sarmale.
Because it’s Christmas after all, I’m not going to go into too much detail on the decree itself, and instead will go back to eating and drinking and being merry. But if you’d like to read further, below are a couple of suggestions:
Crăciun fericit / Merry Christmas / Joyeux Noël!
What? Schengen. That magical group of European countries that have decided to abolish passport checks and border controls between each other. It’s been in the news a bit lately, with high-level figures like Jean Claude Juncker expressing support for Romania and Bulgaria to finally join. But it’s not all been good or straightforward.
On Tuesday (11 Dec), the European Parliament voted on a report which underlined that Romania and Bulgaria’s Schengen readiness should not be linked to the rule of law. The report also states that both countries have met the actual accession criteria.
“The [EU] Council simply doesn't know what to say. For the past five years the Council has been in breach of European rules failing to adopt a decision on the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen area,” Rapporteur Sergey Stanishev (BG, S&D) said.
What’s the problem? Well, the Dutch have for a long time now opposed Romania and Bulgaria’s Schengen accession, citing corruption as the primary reason. However, the broader attitudes towards Bulgaria seem to be shifting, with EPP leader Manfred Weber recently stating his support for the country to join in 2019; the recent CVM report on the two countries also highlighted the considerable progress made by Bulgaria while criticising the rule of law backsliding in Romania.
Therefore, The Romanians are now anxious that they might be left behind. For several years, Romanians took pride in at least being slightly better than Bulgarians when it came to anti-corruption and the rule of law. If the latter enter Schengen in 2019 and Romania does not, I am genuinely afraid the country might go clinically insane. This most recent wave of outrage and self-pity over what many of them decry as racist and colonial-minded actions from the Dutch ought to be a good indicator.
(As an aside, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the Nederlanders from the Zwarte Piet debate, it’s that calling them racists and colonialists is bound to make them reconsider their position.)
Butwhathatabout? As far as I can tell, the main line of attack revolves around the Netherlands’ “hypocrisy,” with issues being invoked that might not be directly about Schengen. The Dutch have in effect become one of the top enemies for Romania’s nationalists and the latest victim of our national inferiority complex.
Former Romanian President Traian Basescu, now in opposition, is stirring the pot by insinuating without evidence on TV that the Dutch PM and the Dutch VP of the Commission, Frans Timmermans, have each visited Romania recently in order to put pressure on Bucharest so that a Dutch company, Damen Shipyards, would win a bid with the Romanian Army to build 4 corvettes.
Plenty of other public figures and headlines are also pushing the narrative that Romania is being treated unfairly according to double standards, and that the real corruption is in the very Western European countries which criticise Romania. For instance:
ALDE MEP Ramona Manescu accused countries like Denmark, Germany, France, the Netherlands of hypocrisy and ignoring big cases of corruption (read more, if you dare).
PSD MP Catalin Radulescu had his usual spiel on the CVM report: ‘double standards,’ ‘unfair and hypocritical’.
Or headlines like:
“Maximum hypocrisy from Belgium and the Netherlands; How the two states are violating EU sanctions on Russia”
“Why the Netherlands doesn’t want us in Schengen or why our corruption isn’t as good as others’ corruption”
I’m not going to insist too much on this. Suffice to say that it’s entirely unsurprising that Russian propaganda channels are jumping on this opportunity to ‘whatabout’ and drive a wedge between two European countries. This is also fully consistent with the Russian modus operandi (yes, I’m pretentious) in Romania, a country historically distrustful of Russia where tactics focus on creating animosity with partners as opposed to cultivating the relationship with Russia.
But wait, there’s more! This attitude goes beyond politicians and the media. The European Council on Foreign Relations made something really cool – a ‘EU coalition explorer 2018,’ based on a survey of expert opinions of 877 respondents who work on European policy in government and think tanks. According to this data, Romanian experts chose the Netherlands as the most disappointing EU member state. One can infer that the Netherlands’ repeated criticism of Romania is partly the reason why.
So what? As we’re moving into 2019, the Schengen issue is a huge wedge between Romania and its European partners. While it’s easy to point at foreign disinformation and efforts to divide, what’s more concerning is how willing Romanians (politicians, media, administration officials) are to do the same for their own short-term gains. As seen in cases like Brexit or the 2016 US elections, Russian operations take place where the ground is already fertile, and boy is Romania fertile.
For a while now, I’ve been worried about our leaders’ carelessness with Romania’s EU position. The Schengen issue is potentially very damaging, and populists have no qualms with demonising other EU member states, while the government insists the Council presidency will go swimmingly and that we’re completely reliable.
#Romexit is still far-fetched, but 2019 might determine if we have a collective mental breakdown because we didn’t get into Schengen.
Last week, Prime Minister Viorica Dancila and the new Minister for EU Affairs, George Ciamba, went to Brussels for a scheduled meeting with all the Commissioners. The two stressed that everything is fine and that Romania is more than prepared to take the chair of the Council, despite previous comments to the contrary by the President (who later backtracked). Well, actually, what Mr Ciamba said was that Romania’s diplomats and bureaucrats are ready to steer the ship even with political turmoil back home. Which is another way of saying ‘our politicians are bickering among each other, but the grown-ups are handling the Presidency.’ That’s good, right?
In any case, this amounts to a tacit agreement between the Government and President to tone down their conflict for the sake of the country’s image over the next few months.
Meanwhile, some bad news for PSD as former PM Victor Ponta’s party, Pro Romania, ‘poached’ 4 MPs from the Social Democrats, leaving the ruling PSD-ALDE coalition without a majority in the Chamber of Deputies. The coalition is now short of two votes, but will most likely do fine by relying on support from smaller parties such as UDMR, who have played the role of kingmaker several times since 1989.
Speaking of bad news for PSD, pollster IMAS released it’s November figures. Since last week I presented the September and October figures without giving you a baseline to compare them to, below you can see the past 3 months of polls next to the 2016 parliamentary results.
The collapse in support for PSD has numerous causes which I’ve mentioned before. The party does have one major thing going for them, and that is, ironically, the weakness of their European family. As this rightly points out, there is an obvious rift between the values of Western Socialists and CEE socialists:
But given the overall decline in support for S&D parties across Europe, the S&D’s hands are tied. It won’t risk taking a stand against any PSD abuses. In many ways, their situation mirrors the EPP’s over Orban and Fidesz, unable to do anything about them because they’ve decided winning elections (or, more accurately, limiting their losses) is more important than upholding their own values. We’ll soon see how that works out for them.
Thus, while PSD is challenged at home, it can at least count on S&D to look the other way should they stumble through the next 6 months.
In unrelated news, Romania reportedly blocked draft conclusions from the agenda of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council. The conclusions included reference to Moldova’s rule of law situation, “including the invalidation of the mayoral elections in Chisinau,” raising ‘significant concerns’ about the country’s commitment to democratic principles, the rule of law, and human rights.
In June this year, courts declared the results of Chisinau’s elections null. Andrei Nastase, a leader of the opposition and a voice for reform, had won 52% of the votes. The invalidation of the results has been criticised as yet another abuse directed by oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc, president of the Democratic Party. The Moldovan PM, Pavel Filip (Democratic Party), expressed his gratitude to Romania for blocking the vote, arguing that, had it gone forward, it would’ve constituted interference in the pre-election campaign (general election scheduled for February 2019).
Romania’s MFA justified its decision through a long and verbose statement that leaves the reader with more questions than answers. In essence, the statement tries to argue that the MFA blocked the draft conclusions because it has reservations ‘over the work format.’
Wait, did I say this was ‘unrelated news’? Somehow every move PSD makes seems to circle back to the rule of law and to ways of undermining it. Its support for Moldova’s government in the face of clear trampling of democratic principles is no different.
As I said in the beginning, everything is fine, just fine.
Every year, Ipsos conducts a study on the gap between perceptions and reality, on almost everything you can imagine: terrorism, teenage pregnancy, smartphone ownership, unemployment etc. What’s striking in this year’s study is the question on immigrants: when asked what proportion of people in their country they think are immigrants, respondents across the world tend to greatly overestimate. In Romania, a country with an immigrant population barely reaching 1% of the total, people estimate that figure is actually closer to 1/4. What could give people this impression, than 1 in 4 of people around them are not Romanian?
And finally, on the banter side of things, the Government announced an internship program at its Permanent Representation in Brussels, spanning the length of the Presidency. The hefty application file should include the candidate’s criminal record to prove that they’re law-abiding citizens. Which is weird because…
There has been a lot of noise recently coming from Romania. We inaugurated a gigantic brutalist Orthodox cathedral, that was something. Our finance minister said something stupid in public and everyone laughed at him. What else…?
President Iohannis, speaking to Austrian media, further qualified his earlier remarks about Romania not being prepared to take over the Council presidency. He told Kurier that Romania can ‘shape a sensible/reasonable (vernünftige) presidency’ even though it would be better to have a more prepared government. He reiterated his support for the country’s anti-corruption efforts and said he hoped internal politics won’t affect the Council presidency.
All in all, not very exciting, just worth noting that Iohannis is softening his stance as we’re nearing the beginning of the mandate, to allow the diplomatic and technical staff to finish the preparations (staff which, in stark contrast with the political body, is working hard and receives much less credit than they deserve).
In other news, Liviu Dragnea is reportedly putting pressure on his Justice Minister to come up with a quick and workable solution for Dragnea’s amnesty and pardon project. The project came from PSD allegedly in reaction to an overcrowded prison system. However, critics maintain Dragnea is pushing for the project for personal gain. Could he be PSD’s presidential nominee next November? Sociologist Barbu Mateescu has laid out three scenarios for PSD and that’s one of them. I highly recommend reading his analysis.
What’s the opposition up to?
Some developments in the never ending saga of Dacian Ciolos (in this Keeping Up analogy, would he be Kourtney if Kourtney is the most normal? Let me know what you think, it’s important). The former EU Commissioner for agriculture, interim Prime Minister, and The Last Hope of many Romanians, has not yet formally registered his party (Miscarea Romania Impreuna - MRI). This apparently sparked criticism from Ludovic Orban, the head of the Liberal Party (PNL), who implied that Ciolos is doing nothing more than watching TV and eating popcorn, occasionally expressing opinions on Facebook.
Ciolos had previously criticised PNL for ‘refusing to reform,’ saying that both PNL and PSD represent the old way of doing politics and that Romania needs to change fundamentally. Which they absolutely do, and it absolutely does.
Meanwhile, both Ciolos and Dan Barna, leader of the Save Romania Union (USR) have entertained the thought of having common candidates for the MEP elections in May. This could be a considerable challenge to PSD and PNL.
Together, USR and MRI poll over 20% which is significant as Romanian politics is becoming increasingly fragmented (this and populist politicians are two areas where we’re definitely in line with the rest of Europe). Where PSD used to hover between 40 and 50% support, guaranteeing its domination over domestic politics and administration, recent polling data suggests they’re on much worse footing than they are usually accustomed to, having dropped under 30% for two straight months.
This is partly because of the many scandals of the Dragnea governments and their attempts to undermine the justice system, whether surreptitiously or by brute force, partly because of Dragnea’s personal unpopularity, and partly due to the alternatives only now beginning to form.
Both MRI and USR are recently established political groups which arose from people’s frustration with the political class as a whole, widespread corruption, and PSD’s repeated and targeted attempts to undermine or take over the justice system (n.b. Ciolos became more involved in domestic politics after he was nominated as interim PM in the wake of the Colectiv disaster; similarly, USR was founded because of people’s anger and dissatisfaction with the political class which allowed such a disaster to take place).
USR has struggled to find an identity for itself beyond anti-corruption; its leaders decided it was too much hassle or too divisive to choose between left and right, so the party is now an eclectic mix of center-right, libertarian, conservative, and progressive members. Meanwhile, MRI is also difficult to place on a basic ideological map, but its manifesto emphasizes freedom, equality, and dignity, and Ciolos has spoken of a project with a strong welfare component. Expect a center/center-left platform when it does become official.
The question then is whether USR and MRI can find enough common ground to stick together in May, thus giving themselves a chance at overtaking either PNL or both PNL and PSD. A strong performance would automatically raise questions about potentially fielding a common candidate for the Romanian presidential elections in November or December.
Speaking of USR, it recently picked its candidates for MEP through internal elections. The list can be found in full on their website.
Lastly, former PM Ponta is trying hard to re-establish himself in Romanian politics, this time on the side of the Resistance. He recently placed an editorial in POLITICO where he criticised Dragnea for his clash with Brussels and assault on the justice reform, having apparently decided Romanians have forgotten his tenure as PM, his fighting with Brussels, his repeated prodding at the justice system, as well as his cowardly and entirely insufficient reaction to Colectiv (he bailed; he just resigned and left everyone else to handle it)
He has recently launched his own party, Pro Romania, together with, among others, Nicolae Banicioiu. The latter was the Health Minister during Colectiv and initially refused transferring burn victims to hospitals abroad, causing pain, humiliation, and death. Oh right, and the official launch took place only days before the 3 year commemoration of Colectiv. If this all seems a bit sinister and vile to you, that’s because it truly is.
Nevertheless, he has a certain charisma which people are drawn to (that boyish face combined with the cheeky humor, I guess) and he could grab 1 or 2 MEP spots in May. God, that was depressing to type.
And that’s our show this week. We didn’t even get to talk about the cathedral or the overflow of patriotism from each and every direction on occasion of the Centenary. I feel like that deserves a space dedicated to it entirely. You can also check out my post on the promotional video the government recently put out if you’re interested that sort of stuff in the meantime.
Tomorrow we’ll be looking at what happened with The Romanians over the last week and why it matters.
In the meantime, the Government has released a promotional country video, ahead of 1 December which will mark 100 years of statehood. You can have a look here (sadly there are no English subtitles available):
It’s definitely a weird video, from the inappropriate telemarketing voiceover to the overflowing pathos. It is riddled with clichés, which is a cardinal sin in itself. Most notably, it perpetuates myths and lies about Romania’s history. I went through the clip multiple times to check the claims it contains so that you don’t have to waste your time and brain cells with it.
Claim: Romania is home to the last wild wolves in Europe.
Facts: In recent years, wolves have begun making a comeback across Europe, in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Finland etc. At best, the information is outdated. Additionally, the clip uses stock footage of wild wolves from Norway. Which definitely complicates matters. Read more.
Claim: Romania is the country of the immortal Dracula
Facts: Dracula is a fictional character. Read more.
Claim: the first instance of human flight using a heavier-than-air vehicle took place in Romania.
Facts: Traian Vuia was Romanian, designed the first monoplane, and proved a heavier-than-air craft could fly. However, he received his degree from the University of Budapest, and went on to build his aircraft and test it in France. Read more.
Claim: The first jet engine and jet plane were both built in Romania.
Facts: In 1910 the Romanian inventor Henri Coanda filed a patent on a jet propulsion system. It was installed in his Coanda-1910 but there are contradictory contemporary accounts about whether the aircraft actually flew. Coanda himself only described it as the ‘world’s first jet’ in the 1950s, 4 decades after its creation.
Claim: The first woman engineer was in Romania.
Facts: Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu was indeed a pioneer, one of the first women engineers in history. However, she received her degree from the Royal Academy of Technology in Berlin, after being denied admission into the School of Bridges and Roads in Bucharest because she was a woman. One could argue she became a pioneer in spite of Romania, not unlike the two gentlemen above.
Claim: The world’s first oil refinery was built in Romania.
Facts: Romania was the first country in the world to have had its own production officially registered. It also was one of the first countries in the world to open a large oil refinery (as opposed to earlier ‘refineries’ which were simple workshops for manual processing of petroleum - i.e. nothing more than distillation). Read more.
Claim: The first European city to be electrically illuminated was in Romania.
Facts: Timisoara was one of the first European cities to be fitted with public electric lights. However, at the time, in 1884, Timisoara was firmly part of Austria-Hungary. Moreover, both Nürnberg and Berlin were fitted with electric public lighting in 1882. Read more.
Claim: The fountain pen is a Romanian invention.
Facts: While reservoir pens date back to the 10th century, it was Petrache Poenaru who patented the fountain pen on May 25th, 1827. He invented it while he was studying in Paris (which is not in Romania). Read more.
Claim: Insulin is a Romanian discovery
Facts: Nicolae Paulescu was professor of Physiology in Bucharest and was quite close to the discovery of insulin but researchers in Toronto were faster and more efficient. Frederick Banting and John Macleod won the Nobel prize, which Banting shared with Charles Best and Macleod with J. Collip. Paulescu’s contribution in insulin discovery was recognized after his death. Read more.
Claim: The cholera vaccine is a Romanian invention.
Facts: Sir Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine, Russian-Jewish émigré to Switzerland and then France, is widely recognised as the first microbiologist to develop an anti-cholera vaccine, tested successfully in India between 1893 and 1903. Read more.
Claim: The Romanian Parliament is the largest building in Europe and 2nd in the world.
Facts: It helps when you know exactly what “largest” means. Obviously, it’s not the tallest building in Europe or 2nd tallest in the world. It also doesn’t crack the global top 10 if we’re talking volume/usable space or footprint on the ground or floor area.
The most it can claim for itself (despite having no alibi whatsoever for being so u.g.l.y.) is that it’s the largest parliament building in the world.
Truth: it’s definitely monstrously big ⭐⭐
These myths, many of them cemented in people’s consciousness over decades of nationalist-communist propaganda, are perpetuated by the government in the year of the Centenary, almost 30 years since the fall of communism. Why is this - beyond the immediate answer of ‘because it’s politically expedient’?
For starters, PSD lives and breathes nationalism and populism. It is the direct descendent of the Romanian Communist Party; this is how nationalist and populist parties like to talk, down to the telemarketing-style affectation and being loose with the facts. If by July 2019 this blog manages to persuade anyone to stop looking at PSD as a Social Democratic party and instead categorise it as a populist/nationalist party, I will be happy.
Then, I believe a good deal of it is pure incompetence. Someone drafted a list of factoids and ‘accomplishments’ they had memorised since primary school and regurgitated them uncritically into a script without a narrative line, probably deciding it’s not worth verifying that everything is correct. I’d go as far as to say this reflects the level of expertise and knowledge of the majority of people promoted through party structures into public administration, but that’s a discussion for a different time.
Lastly, this video is a microcosm of Romania’s inferiority complexes. Why does everything need to be superlative? Why is everything Romanian exceptional and the absolute best? The video also perpetuates the myth that Romania, this “isle of Latin-dom in the Balkans,” is the direct descendant of Rome and Dacia, as if in the 1700 year-interlude since, Romanians didn’t mix with migrating peoples and other neighbouring cultures. Being called a ‘Balkan country’ is still taken as an insult by many Romanians, as the modern identity was built in opposition to the Slavic nations of the region.
We are witnessing a resurrection of protochronism for the digital age: history is abused to serve the narrative of the ruling party, presenting an idealised version of history based on questionable data and dodgy interpretations. It is presented in an easily-shareable and visually appealing format that artificially inflates feelings of patriotism and belonging.
Has the government hit the right note? It may be too early to say. This bar is encouraging, though:
Happy 100th birthday, Romania!
The rotating EU Presidency is an underappreciated part of the complex EU decision-making process. It allows member states to take over coordination activities for some of the EU’s most pressing political and legislative initiatives, for periods of 6 months, providing them with a platform to showcase some of the best assets they bring to the EU table. It also allows them to promote their own projects and profiles, for example how Estonia consolidated its ‘digital country’ brand during its mandate.
But what happens when the internal politics of a member state are so dysfunctional that serious concerns arise whether that country can even handle the presidency? We were supposed to see that in action when Bulgaria took up the presidency in the first half of 2018. Instead, Bulgaria quietly and diligently did its job, managing to, among others, bring the Western Balkans to the top of the EU agenda.
It is now Romania’s turn to cause worry to the rest of the Union, as its internal dynamics and political infighting threaten to derail the January-July 2019 term.
Over the course of the next 7-8 months, I will be dedicating this space to covering Romania’s presidency. From juicy political drama to the rule of law to Brussels policy issues, ‘Keeping up with the Romanians’ will bring you the most relevant news and provide you with analysis of what it means within the bigger picture.
The project is dedicated to Brussels bubble audiences who want a deeper understanding of the next few months and the people taking over the Council presidency, as well as to Romanians interested in how their country is represented abroad. My perspective is informed by my being Brussels-based; things sometimes look differently from here than they do from Bucharest.
It’s a new project for me, so feedback and comments are even more appreciated than usual.
So, what is the current state of play?
The backdrop to Romania’s chaotic politics on the cusp of taking over the Council presidency is, unsurprisingly, the increase in nationalist and illiberal discourse across Europe. The country has not been immune to the virus and is increasingly seen as a new partner to the infamous illiberal posse in Central and Eastern Europe.
The ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) is one of the most populist European ruling parties, but often gets overlooked when populist parties are listed. It can claim the distinct performance of being at once one of the last remaining nominally-socialist parties in power in Europe, and one of the most nationalist.
Led by a twice-convicted Liviu Dragnea, PSD is currently working hard to dismantle the progress made by Romania in anti-corruption over the past decade. Dragnea is barred from being PM because of his convictions and is awaiting another court decision. Critics argue that this personal vendetta is currently setting the course for the entire party apparatus.
The party recently purged several high-profile members, most notably Gabriela Firea, Bucharest mayor and vocal critic of Dragnea. Firea was considered a shoe-in to be PSD’s candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for the second half of 2019, which now leaves the field wide open for a candidacy from Viorica Dancila (currently PM and Dragnea’s stand-in) or even Dragnea himself.
The latest Cooperation and Verification Mechanism report (the EU framework still in place for judicial monitoring in Romania and Bulgaria) was very critical of Romania’s reforms to the judiciary and Criminal Code. Romania was hoping to have the CVM lifted by January 1, 2019; however, the report introduces eight new recommendations to the existing 12, a big step backward.
Moreover, the European Parliament voted a resolution expressing MEPs’ deep concern over the rule of law and the changes of judicial and criminal legislation which will undermine the fight against corruption. PSD MEPs and national politicians reacted angrily with a distinctly self-pitying discourse, claiming Romania was being treated as a second-rate member.
With this clash with Brussels at the forefront, Romania is preparing for its Council Presidency term between 1 Jan 2019 and 1 July 2019.
Fun fact: the logo chosen for the presidency depicts an old proto-Romanian (Dacian) battle standard – a wolf with a serpent’s tail. It remains unclear to this day why this particular symbol was picked, as it more readily represents going to war against invading armies than it does cooperating within a family of like-minded nations. It is worth noting that the current version of the logo features the EU logo and colors prominently, something that the original version did not.
The logo’s current design
The logo’s initial design
Romania will have the unenviable task of overseeing the Brexit negotiations, hosting a Future of Europe summit on 9 May, where national leaders “are expected to mark the culmination of this process with a renewed commitment to an EU that delivers on the issues that really matter to people.” (according to the EC), and acting as Sherpa for a number of legislative packages still on the EU agenda as the Parliament and Commission begin to wrap up their current mandates. In addition, the European Parliament elections will take place in May 2019.
The country will have to manage all of this without Victor Negrescu, former Minister for Europe until very recently when he resigned unexpectedly, presumably because of his failure to ‘soften up’ Brussels on matters like the rule of law, where PSD is trampling norms and legislation.
President Iohannis also caused concern last week when he claimed that Romania is not ready to take over the Council presidency, blaming a dysfunctional and corrupt government steered by Dragnea’s personal interests. He has since softened his stance and said he expects the presidency to go ahead according to plan, not before Finnish officials being put on the spot whether they believe Finland should take over the presidency ahead of schedule (Finland’s term is scheduled between 1 July and 31 December 2019.)
With two major elections for Romanians to be held in 2019 - the European Parliament elections in May, and the Romanian presidential elections in November or December - expect a tumultuous presidency defined by political instability at home and nationalist tendencies.
Watch this space!