The People's Palace in Bucharest

The People’s Palace in Bucharest

In May 2014, Romania will be called to the European polling booth for the second time since accession to elect 33 new MEPs. In a country marked by corruption, political scandals and fragile coalition governments, EU politics has a definite role to play. By Maxence Salendre.

Machiavelli’s statement that it is much safer to be feared than loved has never been more applicable than in Romanian politics. Led by an extreme-right dictator during World War II before falling under the command of the USSR and Nicolae Ceausescu until 1989, current politics in Romania continue to mirror the worst aspects of communist rule. Bad habits die hard.

Ceausescu’s violent downfall in 1989 and the ruling of the post-revolutionary National Salvation Front (FSN) saw the return of confusing party politics to a country used to the single party rule for most of the 20th century. Leading the catch-all, social democratic FSN party was Ion Iliescu, second president of Romania (Ceausescu being the first) and former Communist leader. He was elected President of Romania for two terms. Opposing the FSN was the National Liberal Party (PNL) which promoted a centre-right policy platform composed of Europeanisation policies, privatisations and de-nationalisation of the economy. Romania applied for EU membership in 1993 and became an associated state in 1995.

The implosion of the FSN led to the formation of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Democratic Party (PD). Current President Traian Basescu was a member of the PD until 2004. The PD has since merged with a breakaway group of opposition party PLN, the Liberal Democratic Party, to form the current Democratic Liberal Party (PDL).

Romania is a semi-presidential parliamentary republic where the President is the head of state and the Prime Minister the head of government. Elected for a five-year term, the President nominates the Prime Minister following the results of legislative elections and party supremacy in Romania’s bicameral Parliament, housed in the People’s Palace, the former palace of Ceausescu and the second largest building in the world.

Incumbent president Traian Basescu, a former PD member, is the only EU president to have been suspended from office twice after allegations of electoral fraud. Basescu’s presidency has been darkened by suspicions of fraud, a controversial judgment of the Supreme Court in his favour and a constitutional crisis that pitted the president against Prime Minister Victor Ponta of the opposition PSD.

After two failed impeachment procedures (2007 and 2012), the appearance of Romania’s political situation at the forefront of European media, and EU involvement in the 2012 constitutional crisis, the question remains of the EU’s role in domestic Romanian politics.

A successful Union?

The “Tiger of Eastern Europe” has clearly benefited from its accession to the EU in 2007. In the fight against corruption, European integration and the adoption of more democratic rules have clearly wrought an improvement from former Communist behaviour. Although corruption and clientelism are often denounced in Romanian politics, Romania was recently ranked 69 out of 177 In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index[1]. With over 50% of people thinking that personal wealth can only be achieved by violating the law in Romania, the main explanations for corruption are poverty, an “underdeveloped bureaucracy” and the communist legacy[2]. The creation of the Superior Council of the Magistracy (following an EU recommendation to install greater rule of law) was one step in this direction as it created a judicial body separated from the executive branch.

In terms of economic reform, there are tangible signs of a new era. Romania is currently setting up tax breaks, is adopting EU business and tax regulations, and secured €30bn in structural funds in the period 2007-2013. New investments are made and the coordinated fight against corruption and fraud turns Romania, in the words of political scientist Claudiu Craciun, “into the most Europeanised country on the continent”[3]. At the crossroads between Latin and Slavic culture (Romanian is one of the five Romance languages), Romania attracts heavy investment from France and Italy whose culture and language are similar.

Even though Romania has clearly benefited from EU integration, a recent Eurobarometer survey[4] raises concerns about popular support toward the Union. 74% of Romanians think their voice does not really count in the EU, 41% do not feel like citizens of the EU and only 40% claim that they know their EU rights.

Ambivalent support for the EU

In the meantime, while 68% of Romanians are optimistic for the future of the EU, the adoption of the euro is desired only by 58% of citizens. 85% think that Romania’s current economic situation is bad (their main concerns being the economic crisis, inflation and unemployment). What can explain such ambivalent support toward the EU?

The answer can probably be found in the Union’s behaviour toward Romanian politics. Confronted by harsh austerity measures and witnessing daily political scandals involving the political (and often formerly communist) elite of the nation, Romanians were bewildered by the support of the European party federations and the European Commission for Traian Basescu after the Constitutional Court’s ruling on his impeachment in 2012.

The story goes back to 1989 when, after 42 years of single-party Communist rule, Romanian parties rose from the ashes to take back their place in national politics. Shattered after nearly half a century of non-existence, they lacked the political organisation to lead them to electoral victory. This fact was well-understood by Ion Iliescu, who set up a catch-all party to gather as many voices as was possible.

In this fight for recognition, European party federations came in handy as they provided the political support and European recognition to Romanian parties which did not have any left. A strong Europhile support against European recognition, not a bad deal after all.

The 2012 constitutional crisis marked a turning point. After a narrow (and contested) re-election in 2009, President Basescu, under the pressure of the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission pushed for harsh austerity measures. But Romanian politics being used to coalitions and ideology switching, it was not long until the coalition led by then-Prime Minister Emil Boc imploded. The failure of negotiations and the nomination of a contested secret service agent as Prime Minister increased popular discontent while strengthening PSD opposition. New elections led to a landslide victory for the PSD, and the nomination of the PSD’s Victor Ponta as prime minister. Ponta called for the impeachment of the president.

Aside from political differences and a cabinet crisis between the new prime minister and the president, the referendum held on President Basescu’s impeachment and the rejection of the results of this referendum by the Supreme Court because of low turnout (46%) increased popular anger after results showed 86% voted in favour of impeachment.

EU involvement in this matter started when European party federations sent messages of support to their parties. The European Parliament, the EPP group and both President Barroso and Chancellor Merkel supported President Basescu (despite European Parliament President Schulz being a Social Democrat) at a time when strong Romanian leadership to apply austerity measures was needed.

Romanian support toward the EU radically changed. According to an April 2013 poll[5], while 35% deemed that joining the Union was beneficial to Romania, 21% thought the opposite and 34% remained undecided. If positive ideas such as free circulation of people, the advancement of human rights and economic development are linked to the EU (with respectively 76.2%, 57.1% and 47.3%), the EU is also negatively seen as intervening into domestic politics (53.9%), subordinating Romania to western countries (50.6%) and losing control over the economy (43.7%).

In the words of Claudiu Craciun, there is a Romanian “structural Euro-scepticism (…) which surprisingly resembles an anti-colonial dimension”. The EU position on recent fights such as the opposition to shale gas drilling and the Rosia Montana mining project were therefore watched carefully. The quick introduction of liberalism, the withdrawal of the state in a country used to state planning and SovRoms (Soviet-Romanian joint-ventures set up as Moscow was relying more and more on Romanian natural resources) and the clumsy first steps of the EU in a domestic political issue has left Romanians with an ambivalent opinion on their recent membership.

Despite recent eurosceptic claims following the crisis, it is likely that Romania’s situation in the eye of other European member states remains uneasy at the table of negotiations. The amalgamation usually made between Roma people and Romanians does not serve them well in the eyes of a western press which too often voices the archaic and unfounded claims of a “Romanian invasion threat”[6] while also appearing to deride its south-eastern European neighbours.

Let us now hope that eurosceptic nationalism will not take over the minds of Romanians and that they will show Europe how fruitful an EU-Romania collaboration can be.








Image “People’s Palace” courtesy of Michael Day via Flickr. Published under Creative Commons.

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