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Will Romania buck the Visegrad trend?

On December 11th, Romania will hold a parliamentary election, which will determine the fate of caretaker prime minister Dacian Cioloș – a former European Commissioner who took power in the wake of a deadly Bucharest club fire last year. In other parts of Central and Eastern Europe, recent elections have brought to power nativist parties (like Poland’s Law and Justice) or pro-Russian leaders (like in the recent Moldovan and Bulgarian presidential elections) that have shaken Europe’s internal unity to its core.  Will Romania follow suit or will Bucharest buck this increasingly Europhobic trend plaguing its neighbourhood?

November 22, 2016 - Flavia Constantin - Articles and Commentary

Dacian Ciolos

The answer is simple – in what might come as a surprise for some, Romania is one of the few countries in the EU where anti-globalist, Eurosceptic parties have yet to make major inroads. Both the party poised to take power and its rivals espouse a fundamental commitment to Europe.

Indeed, ever since Viktor Orban’s brutal responses to the refugee crisis, which sparked a series of likeminded moves in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, people have been used to hearing about Central and Eastern European rejection of European principles. Even Angela Merkel has been stymied by the considerable opposition to her Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture) from other member states and from within her own party. Faced with this wave of populism, Jean-Claude Juncker gave a blunt rebuttal in his September State of the Union address before the European Parliament: “Populism doesn’t solve problems. Populism creates problems, and we have to be aware of that and protect ourselves against it.”

However, standing in stark contrast to these nativist fantasies, Romania has constantly served as an outlier in Eastern Europe, embracing a more European and pragmatic stance. Unlike Orbán’s xenophobic-driven authoritarianism, Romania’s political leaders have been jockeying to burnish their pro-European credentials.

Bucharest’s commitment to Europe has proven increasingly important the more inward looking attitudes succeed in sending shivers down the EU’s collective spine. Romanian politicians are making it clear they want to contribute to regional and European cohesion, standing in opposition to their neighbours of the Visegrad Group. Romania faced the brunt of Orban’s Euroscepticism in 2015 when the Prime Minister at the time, Victor Ponta of the Social Democrats (PSD), confronted Hungarian diplomats over their counterproductive initiative to build another fence on the border. Ponta called it “a gesture that is not politically correct and that contravenes the European spirit.” 

Within major parties like the PSD and the National Liberals (PNL), any hardline nationalist agenda within the ranks have been banished to the outskirts of the political limelight. The PSD, as Romania’s largest party and the one tipped to win December’s polls, has placed European objectives above the nativist trends infecting the region, unlike other European opposition parties that are trying to gain votes by appealing to disaffected voters’ basest instincts. Liviu Dragnea, who took the reins of the PSD in the wake of Ponta’s departure, has championed this approach.

Instead of worrying about the role Brussels should play in the country’s politics, Romanians are more interested in getting the economy working again. Even though Eurostat reports Romania as having the EU’s fastest rate of growth out of all the 28 states in the second quarter of 2016 (1.5 per cent), internal negative views on the state of the economy have been captured in the Eurobarometer. Romanians worry about the high rate of unemployment, which pushes them to work abroad, the lack of social security ensured by the state and the unreasonably high costs of living.

And however pro-European the Romanian public is now, the roots of nationalist stigma still run deep in its history. The spectre of ethnic conflicts like those seen in the 1990s political battles between the Great Romanian Party and the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania still haunts the nation. While the public mood has not followed the Visegrad trend for now, Romania has to be proactive in calming its inner nationalist narratives and preventing the risk of stronger pessimist voices echoing against Europe.

This will be especially true on December 11th. Prime Minister Cioloș, a non-aligned technocrat, has presided over a stopgap government, which has seen 11 ministers resign in less than a year.  Nevertheless, his Brussels credentials have been heavily sought after by the National Liberal Party, who has tried to entice Ciolos into leading their campaign in the hopes that his reputation can reassure voters struggling to get on low incomes.

In the run-up to the December vote, the PSD is still the strongest in terms of electoral backing. The party is adopting a multifaceted narrative that combines measures against poverty and insecurity and pulling large numbers of Romanians into the middle class with wage increases. The PSD’s program also calls for major income tax decreases and the elimination of some 102 non-fiscal taxes – various charges and fees for routine state documents and licenses. The importance of such measures goes beyond country-level electoral success, as failures to ensure better standards of living and economic security elsewhere in Europe have led directly to the rise of right-wing populism and nationalism.

Ironically, the Romanian left’s economic measures seem more feasible and productive than those being offered by the far-right wing Eurosceptic parties that have mushroomed across Europe. In making sure the Romanian electorate does not feel tempted to diverge from its current affinity for Europe after the December vote, solid and inclusive economic growth will be indispensable.

Flavia Constantin is a Bucharest-based sociologist and human rights activist with a focus on Roma issues.

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