A new cathedral in Bucharest is expected to bring Romanians together
Romania holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2019. It is the country’s first presidency and the current period is very controversial for it. Romania’s internal political landscape is very turbulent and corruption is undermining its credibility as presiding state.
Political conflict, controversial draft legislation and yet another prime minister assuming office and leading the government have been ubiquitous in recent years in Romania. Both the EU and the Romanian opposition doubt whether the country will be able to conclude its presidency with grace. In addition to internal political problems, Brexit taking place during the first half of 2019 will make the presidency much more difficult. Addressing this issue makes it very hard for Romania to highlight its own presidency priorities.
It was a great disappointment for the Romanians that its long-awaited accession to the Schengen Area was not achieved by the beginning of the presidency. Although the European Parliament considered that Romania met the conditions for Schengen membership, the European Council hasn’t yet approved the decision. The reason for postponing membership of the Schengen Agreement has been known for a long time. The rule of law situation in Romania and corruption have been major causes of concern since the country’s accession to the EU in 2007. Romania is the third-worst EU country in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index; only its neighbours Bulgaria and Hungary score lower.
In December 2018, the Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis, publicly questioned the government’s ability to take over the EU Presidency. Before that, Victor Negrescu, the minister for EU affairs, had surprisingly resigned, which caused surprise and posed questions that have not been answered to this day. Negrescu’s political career had been on the rise. Before holding ministerial office in 2014–17, the social democrat (still only 33 years old) was an MEP and his party’s coordinator in the Party of European Socialists (PES) in Brussels.
The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, also expressed his great dissatisfaction with the Romanian government, and especially with its first female prime minister, Viorica Dăncilă. In an interview with the German paper Welt am Sonntag on 30 December 2018, he questioned whether Romania’s political leadership had fully understood what the EU presidency demanded of them.
In addition to Juncker, doubts about Romania have also been expressed by his expected successor from Germany, Manfred Weber. He says it is incomprehensible that the country holding the Presidency of the Council of the EU can have issues with the rule of law. These comments have certainly damaged Ms Dăncilă’s reputation. During her first year as prime minister, she has often been critcised by her political opponents over her incorrect public statements and errors of protocol.
Chaos Among the Political Parties
The EU presidency passed to Romania from Austria. Romania, in turn, will hand over to Finland, which will hold the position from 1 July 2019 for the third time since its accession to the EU. Finland has already offered its help to Romania for the presidency, but Bucharest politely rejected the offer, saying it could handle the job despite the extra burden caused by Brexit.
However, the grounds for doubting Romania’s ability to manage the EU presidency lie in the country’s internal policy. The party-political landscape has been divided and criticised for a long time, and quarrels have distanced the parties from one another to the extreme. New parties have been created following the fragmentation of old ones. The governing party, the Social Democrats (PSD), continues to argue with president Iohannis on a daily basis.
Above all, the new parties cause problems for the Social Democrats. For example, Pro Romania is the project of Victor Ponta, a former leader of the Social Democrats and prime minister from 2012 to 2015. Another former prime minister, Dacian Cioloş, who was in office after the technocratic government led by Ponta, has also founded his own party, PLUS (which signifies party of freedom, unity and solidarity).
Ponta’s Pro Romania gained much traction at the end of January for the coming European Parliament elections in the spring. At the same time, the PSD suffered a severe blow. Corina Creţu, who has served in various positions in Brussels for decades and is the current European Commissioner for Regional Policy, announced her candidacy in the European Parliament elections as a member of Ponta’s party. Creţu was one of the founders of the PSD, with Ion Iliescu, who became president of Romania after dictator Nikolae Ceaușescu was overthrown in December 1989. Creţu had recently been in dispute with the party’s current leadership.
The suspicion and accusations of corruption have shaken the PSD’s leaders and led the party to a continuous management crisis. Viorica Dăncilă is the fourth prime minister of the Social Democrats-led government in the last three years.
Iohannis, who became president from the ranks of the National Liberal Party, has undermined several ministerial candidates, referring to their incompetence. The appointment of some ministers has taken several months. Among other things, the president stated that he had not been given documents on the criminal background of all candidates. The arguments have also affected the appointment of the head of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). Laura Codruţa Kövesi, head of the DNA from 2013, has been recognised for her work, but was dismissed in July 2018 as a result of long-term pressure. Kövesi filed a complaint against the Romanian government at the European Court of Human Rights shortly after the beginning of the EU presidency. The government sees this as an unacceptable attempt to undermine the country’s reputation.
The dismissal of prosecutor Kövesi was preceded by a dispute between the government and the president that went on for months. In the end, president Iohannis had to give in because the High Court of Cassation and Justice considered the dismissal lawful. Kövesi filed a complaint over he dismissal at the Court of Human Rights on the grounds that she was not given the opportunity to defend herself in the dispute over her dismissal. The government soon struck back. An investigation team of three professors came to the conclusion that Kövesi’s PhD thesis, which was previously considered competent, contained 4% of plagiarised material and that her degree should be revoked.
Prime minister Viorica Dăncilă is facing major challenges. She assumed office in January 2018 when the former PM, Mihai Tudose, had to resign. (It appeared that Tudose’s doctoral thesis was also partly plagiarised.) Among other things, Ms Dăncilă came under criticism for using vulgar language about the Hungarian minority in Romania and directly threatening them. She has limited experience of international policy, leading to continuous attacks by the opposition, which monitors her every move and tries to find new ammunition against the government.
Dăncilă’s position is not made any easier by the public belief that she is being guided by Liviu Dragnea, current president of the Social Democrats, who heads the party behind the scenes. Dăncilă and Dragnea both come from Teleorman County, where Dragnea was called a “local baron”. He hid from the public after being convicted of electoral fraud, corruption and misuse of public property.
On top of this, president Iohannis has described Dăncilă’s government as a “trauma to democracy”. Ms Dăncilă, on the other hand, has consistently accused the president of supporting “anarchist demonstrators” and attempting to overthrow the government. The president’s term of office is five years, and a new incumbent will be elected in March this year, adding to political tensions.
Mass Protests Against Corruption
The Romanian public have also put spokes in the wheels of their government. Over the last two years, there have been large-scale protests, with about a million people involved in major demonstrations on the streets of big cities. The protesters have loudly demanded the updating of a deeply corrupt government system.
The same issue was addressed by the European Union in a report on Romania in the autumn of 2018. The document said the principles of the rule of law had not been properly implemented, and that the development of the rule of law had even gone into reverse.
It is estimated that 120 billion euros was spent on tackling corruption in the EU in 2014. However, citizens have not yet shown any common initiative in preventing crime and nepotism. According to president Iohannis, in terms of corruption, Romania has moved back 11 years to the time before accession to the EU. The government has introduced draft laws to parliament that would make bribes and the misuse of public property lawful if the offence was within a given limited value in euros. This intention to “legalise corruption” resulted in huge protests in 2017. The government proposed a ceiling of 200,000 euros for “legal theft”. The draft law did not succeed. According to the revised proposal, the limit would be 44,000 euros. President Iohannis has announced that he does not intend to approve the law.
People’s resentment did not disappear, as new protests were organised in 2018. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in a demonstration in Bucharest in August, including migrant workers who had come to Romania for summer holidays. There were also demonstrations in the largest county seats. The demonstrations in Bucharest ended in riots and the heavy intervention of the police. The opposition blamed the police for using force and demanded punishment, but the government decisively rejected the charges.
The people are planning to repeat their show of feelings via social media in August 2019. The government has been active in claiming that the protests are only part of an external campaign to undermine the country’s reputation.
Not a Revolution, But a Change of Power
It is estimated that three million Romanians work in other EU countries; in particular, Italy, Germany and France have benefited from the Romanian workforce. At the same time, Romania faces dire labour shortages in a number of industrial and service sectors. For example, in the shipbuilding industry, workers are already brought in from Asia.
It is good to examine the situation in Romania by looking at the past. In fact, after the execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, there was no true revolution in Romania, but only a change of power. Political and economic power was hijacked by the leaders of the secret police, the Securitate, and its security apparatus, which were disguised as democratic institutions. It continues to have a major impact on politics and also defines the everyday life of all Romanians. Without good connections, even an excellent education is not sufficient to get a good job.
Young people are worried about corruption on all administrative levels, nepotism, a tense political atmosphere and the feeling of being second-class EU citizens. Romanians who are still working in their homeland seem to be doing well—or at least better than before EU membership. In the World Happiness Report, Romania ranked 52nd in 2018, leaving other Balkan countries, including Montenegro, far behind.
Educated middle-class people in big cities are now much more open and better off and look healthier than in the early 2000s. The lives of their parents who stayed in the countryside are still tough. In rural areas, wages are so low that they do not allow a tolerable living. According to Eurostat, nine out of ten Romanians earn less than 550 euros a month.
There are large regional differences in the standard of living and wages of the middle class. Some Romanians have enough money to travel abroad, but they still aren’t satisfied. In Western Europe, Romanians are generally still considered to be second-class citizens. When Romania joined the EU, it was clear that the country did not comply with the accession criteria as stated on paper. However, enlargement was important for the EU, and political purpose trumped the requirements; Bulgaria joined at the same time and with the same shortcomings.
Peace and Hope from a Papal Visit
Expectations for the Romanian EU presidency are high, as is always the case with presidencies. During its half-year, Romania wants to promote convergence, cohesion and unity. But Brexit alone creates enough tension for the country holding the presidency. And if you include the interpretation of Romania’s own set of values, the stubbornness of Hungary, the introversion of Poland and the unpredictability of Italy in the equation, we definitely won’t be bored. Romania’s task is not enviable. There is unrest everywhere in the EU
Many hope that Pope Francis will bring some peace, hope and faith to the belligerent Romanians when he visits Bucharest on 31 May, a month before the end of Romania’s EU Presidency. The culmination of the visit will be a mass at the new People’s Salvation Cathedral, the largest Orthodox sanctuary in Romania. Its bell-tower is 120 metres tall, taller than any other Orthodox church in the world. The Romanian government has contributed about 100 million euros to the financing of the cathedral.
During the nine years of construction, people have both admired and ridiculed the cathedral. It embodies the opposition between a powerful building and a poor nation. And yet it is believed that the cathedral will reunite Romanians. As one Romanian who watched the cathedral’s consecration from afar said: “Thank God! Now we can pray like normal people, not like the poor. Hopefully, many miraculous icons will be sent to the church.”
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.