Trans-Europe Express: 1989 (Slight return)

Sent out every Friday at noon, Trans-Europe Express gives you an insider's view of the most important coverage from across the EURACTIV media network, its media partners and much more.

1989 (Slight return)

Putin couldn’t have scripted it better. Twenty-seven years after the end of communism, Romanians had taken to the streets again, this time, to protest against a democratically elected government in the European Union. The irony was obvious. But press coverage wasn’t willing to go that far, limiting itself to pointing out that this week’s anti-corruption protests were the biggest since 1989.

Of course there’d be a silver lining for Russia. The political order that had followed its former client regime, with the ringing endorsement of the West, was just as corrupt as the communists had been. Though the governing Social Democrats are by no means as Putin-friendly as their Hungarian counterparts, the only wrinkle is that they aren’t fully hostile either. The picture is a bit more complicated.

For the EU, the embarrassment is still there. Its years of anti-corruption efforts had obviously come to naught and, under the guise of an elected government, the Romanian left was excusing itself from the requirement of accountability, and observing the niceties of a state based on law, not ideology or patronage. It might as well be the Ceaucescu regime, albeit in Italian suits, bearing iPhones.

The problem is that there’s no disguising the context their transgressions play into and what this means for Russia’s growing presence in the European Union. Under the cover of populist movements, which began taking the place of traditionally fascist parties in the early 1970s, Moscow has begun exercising a level of influence in European politics unseen since the Cold War, when it propped up a good many communist parties in the West and fully ran them in the East.

Corruption in former Soviet bloc states like Romania is a reward for such efforts. It helps to point out that Russia’s former clients are no better off now, allied with Brussels, than they were as satellites of Moscow. What this says, of course, about the EU and what the bloc is willing to tolerate within its own borders, is troubling. It is not too different from working with Turkey on solving the migrant crisis, despite its refugee-driving war against the Kurds.

What the EU ideally ought to be offering is the democratic alternative it is supposed to represent. Not a compromise, based on realpolitik, whereby it’s better to be allied with illiberal democracies, like Hungary, than it is hand them back to Putin. No doubt, it would be acknowledging a failure. But this would be better than letting the politics of such states come to have a decisive influence in the West.

This isn’t to say that the EU failed in Central Europe. But with populist governments more the norm than not, the coming surge of extremist parties in Western elections this year would be entirely appropriate, and Moscow will inevitably follow. Corruption, when synonymous with democracy, is fertile ground for far right parties. The Romanian protests might be the last progressive response to it.

The Inside Track

It would be a populist dream come true. On Thursday, Rome’s Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan told the Senate that if the Commission opens an infringement procedure against Italy, it’d entail a reduction in sovereignty in economic policy, higher government spending, and a rise in interest rates. If elections are held this summer, 5 Star is all but guaranteed its first government.

President of the Council of the Notariats of the European Union (CNUE) José Manuel García Collantes told EURACTIV Spain that the European project remains on track and that free movement and integration will continue “with or without Brexit”.

The Russians will fire a few more missiles at Ukraine, and probably Syria, for this. To make Thursday a little more palatable, the European Parliament decided to lift the visa regime with Georgia, allowing Georgians to enter the Schengen area without a visa for short stays. Final approval is pending, but this is the endgame.

Will Romania’s government respond like Ceaucescu? Hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets across the country on Wednesday to protest the government’s decriminalising of a string of corruption offences, the largest demonstrations since the fall of communism in 1989.

The European Commission thinks Serbia is doing an excellent job caring for the 7,000 or so migrants and refugees currently taking up residence on its territory. But, as EURACTIV Serbia reports, the asylum seekers aren’t exactly living the high life.

The EU’s approach to the Western Balkans mirrors its approach to North Africa and the Middle East. By emphasising stability ahead of democracy, the EU risks aligning itself with increasingly illiberal and authoritarian regimes, argues Arlind Puka.

Not everyone in Europe hates US President Donald Trump. The Poles sort of like him, the Slovaks think he’s alright, and the Czechs and Hungarians are positively enthusiastic. EURACTIV’s Central European partners report.

His Islamophobia ought to be a dead giveaway. Czech President Miloš Zeman has come out in support of Trump’s refugee policy. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Even the populist-leaning Danish government has its limits. “The US decision not to allow entry of people from certain countries is NOT fair. Meet every man/woman as an individual,” the country’s Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen tweeted on Sunday.

“Bulgaria’s choice of the EU and NATO is strategic and should not be called into question,” the country’s newly elected President, Rumen Radev, told euractiv.com’s Georgi Gotev. Trump would not, and likely does not, approve.

If only Macedonia could get its (democratic) act together. Plagued by nationalism and the authoritarian tendencies typical of post-communist states, it also wants to be part of the EU. But it can’t even recognise the linguistic rights of its own Albanian community, which make up over a quarter of the country’s population.

After a surprise first-round victory, Benoît Hamon took the second round of France’s Socialist primary by a comfortable margin. According to EURACTIV France’s Adrien Valbray, the leftist rebel and former minister for education beat ex-premier Manuel Valls in Sunday’s run-off by 58% to 41%.

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