This week, Romania assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time. In the next six months, the country will have the opportunity to shape the EU’s agenda and increase Romanian influence on policy issues such as Brexit, Europe’s neighbourhood, Western Balkans countries’ accession talks, and the broader future of the European project. For Romania, this should have been a moment for celebration. But the country’s dysfunctional domestic politics – seen in the lack of constructive dialogue between political parties and an apparent drift towards populism – have cast a shadow on its new role. Nonetheless, the “deep state” – as civil servants are often referred to in Romanian public discourse – appears likely to guide a competent EU presidency, even against a background of fierce domestic political battles.
A country of contrasts
Despite its decisive victory in the 2016 parliamentary elections, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) has been unable to prevent a rise in domestic political instability and polarisation. The party has even contributed to this trend, despite its traditional focus on stability. Banned from becoming prime minister, PSD leader Liviu Dragnea has sought to closely control the cabinet, directing the appointment of three prime ministers and more than 70 ministers in the last two years. This pattern is likely to continue until the next parliamentary election, as the kind of politically loyal appointees Dragnea favours are not always competent leaders. Politics comes before policy when the PSD’s priorities diverge. Meanwhile, the government’s attempt to modify the criminal code has combined with high-level corruption cases to trigger massive street protests. The National Anticorruption Directorate and the intelligence services – who the parliamentary majority condemns as a “parallel state” (in contrast to the more benign “deep state”) – have allegedly interfered in politics, exacerbating public discontent.
On a more basic level, rival political parties fail to listen to one another’s concerns. As a consequence, everyone is frustrated: those in power are fixated on enemies who are allegedly trying to send them to jail, and their opponents are demoralised by the prospect that the ruling coalition will evade corruption charges. Thus, citizens confront a domestic drama in which the political class is less attentive to Romania’s international image and influence than at any time since the 1989 revolution.
Yet Romania remains an incredible country, full of potential and contrasts. The Romanian economy is still going strong and the government’s wage-focused economic policy has sought to address inequality, with mixed results. However, Romania has in recent years been slow to make use of European funding, even by its own standards. And the government has held off from large-scale public investment in education, healthcare, energy, and infrastructure – a trend that looks set to continue, judging by recent fiscal policy announcements. There have been repeated delays to a planned sovereign wealth fund that the government portrays as a miracle cure. Moreover, the PSD’s hasty style has eroded its electoral support base and its parliamentary majority has been weakened by purges and defections. To rebuild its credibility, the party would have to be more transparent and reasoned in its decision-making, avoiding last-minute announcements that unsettle businesses and foreign leaders alike. (This is unlikely to happen.)
The seeming rise in Romanian illiberalism is, in reality, only a product of leaders’ inability to implement fundamental reforms
Politically, the European Parliament elections and the Romanian presidential election will overshadow Romania’s EU presidency. Although it might appear that domestic political turmoil could undermine Romanian diplomats’ capacity to conduct a coherent and robust EU presidency, Romania has enough diplomatic capacity to prevent this. Most ministers will likely maintain discipline and avoid dragging the presidency into domestic politics. As such, concerns that the presidency will be overly challenging for either Bucharest or Brussels are overblown. The May 2019 Sibiu summit and other meetings organised under Romania’s leadership will proceed smoothly, providing EU members with a chance to reach agreements on major policy issues.
Tactics before strategy
In contrast to the ruling parties in Budapest, Warsaw, and Rome, the PSD pursues an agenda that centres on transactional rather than ideological aims. For the PSD, short-term interests linked to political success come before any broader project. Indeed, while leaders in Bucharest may occasionally imitate those in Washington, Brussels, Warsaw, Budapest, or Rome, the tension within Romanian society is ideological in appearance only. The situation in Bucharest has little to do with the populism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Instead, it is the product of intra-elite fighting over the judiciary and political power.
The absence of cooperation between Romania’s rival political forces stems from their preparations for elections later this year. President Klaus Iohannis describes PSD leaders as “criminals”, who in turn cast doubt on his integrity and accuse him of selling out to foreigners. Iohannis began his strident criticism of the PSD only recently, likely in response to the polarisation of right-wing voters. The less-than-convincing performance of past Romanian governments has created a tradition in which members of the opposition cooperate to force a power shift in parliament. Yet the PSD survived a no-confidence vote last month because there was no prospect that its rivals would form a stable alternative coalition.
Driven by a desire to stay in power rather than a specific agenda, Romanian political leaders have a habit of periodically announcing grand projects that begin to deteriorate even as they are implemented. Looking at many members of the elite, one is reminded more of Austin Powers than James Bond. The lesson for foreign leaders is not to give the Romanian political class – which is known for its ineffective policies and gravitation towards happy accidents – more credit than it deserves, including in its potential as a menace. This requires them to avoid exaggerating the significance of events in Bucharest for Europe and to continue to press the Romanian government on substantive policy issues. It also requires them to shy away from lecturing Romanians, many of whom are becoming more patriotic rather than more nationalistic.
Therefore, the Romanian EU presidency is unlikely to involve any striking political leadership or ground-breaking initiatives. But it will be stable, which is crucial at a time when the EU is focused on cohesion between member states. Iohannis and government ministers will take their duties seriously, keenly aware of the media scrutiny they are under at home and abroad.
The seeming rise in Romanian illiberalism is, in reality, only a product of leaders’ inability to implement fundamental reforms – a failure that has helped drive more than five million citizens to seek work abroad (more than in any other EU country). While this leaves Romanian political parties reliant on further happy accidents, it will not compromise Romania’s tenure as EU president.
Radu Magdin is a strategic communications analyst and a former adviser to the prime ministers of Romania and Moldova.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.