Ciolos: Romanian PSD government can only be trusted after it resigns

Dacian Cioloș in the office of EURACTIV on 5 June 2019. [Georgi Gotev]

In an exclusive interview, the former Romanian prime minister and former European Commissioner, Dacian Cioloș, said his newly-formed political force will be able to tap into a reformist wave that will change his country – and help change the EU.

Dacian Cioloș was Agriculture Commissioner in the Barroso Commission from 2010 to 2014 and prime minister of Romania from November 2015 to January 2017. He is now one of the two leaders of the 2020-USR Plus alliance, and was elected as MEP.

He spoke to Georgi Gotev and Ioan Bucuras.

First of all, congratulations on the election results! If I understood correctly, your coalition 2020-USR Plus came out third, only 16.000 votes short of the ruling PSD…

…even less, 12,500 votes. 0.1% of difference.

Romanian ruling social-democrats suffer heavy loss

Romania’s pro-European parties inflicted a serious defeat on Romania’s ruling Social Democrats (PSD) in the European parliament elections Sunday (26 May), according to partial official results.

That’s an extraordinary result. What does this mean?

Well, first of all, it is a sign that the Romanian people are waking up and assuming their vote. I think what we were missing in 2016 was exactly this. Back then there were many people who understood that things can be changed in Romania, one year after our mandate [Cioloș was prime minister between November 2015 and January 2017], but they did not get out and vote. This time around, even if we’re talking about EU elections here, we had over 10% higher voter turnout than in 2016 at the Romanian parliamentary elections. And this made the difference between 2016 and now.

So, to us, this is a very clear sign that the Romanian people understood the importance of the vote and they mobilise. We wish to maintain this momentum because our final objective – we said this from the beginning – our final objective is to have a parliamentary majority in 2020 so we can govern, and even more so, a parliamentary majority that would allow us to reform the constitution. Because Romania doesn’t only need a new, functional government, Romania needs to change from its foundations, in order to avoid situations like the ones we’ve had in 2017 and 2018, when some “politicians”, who entered the parliament and secured a majority, blew up the entire judicial system and the credibility of the state. And these things need to be hindered through constitutional reform.

But until then there’s time…

Yes, there is indeed time until then, but it’s a time period that we need to use actively because we have presidential elections this year, we have local elections next year and then the parliamentary elections. So we are, as I mentioned before, in a sort of “tetrathlon”, if I were to make an analogy, and we just finished the first challenge and we still have three other challenges to succeed in, in order to win the race.

And what will you do, given the circumstances? Will you run in the presidential elections?

I am part of a team. We, in the alliance with USR, are a team. And we will make the right decision and find the right solution for this team to be the winning team. We will think about a proposal for the presidency which will be part of this bigger project of ours, which will lead us to having a parliamentary majority in the Romanian Parliament. That’s how we see both upcoming elections: the presidential and the local ones. I think in roughly 2-3 weeks, or at the beginning of July the latest, we will make the announcement about who our candidate is for the presidential elections. But most certainly, we will talk about a project and not only about a person, and we will integrate this proposal of ours in the bigger picture. And I will be part of this team.

Should we trust PSD, or its Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă, when she comes to Brussels and promises a “U-turn” on judicial reforms?

I think we can trust this government at the moment it has resigned. Only from that moment onwards can we believe that they’ve kept their promises, when they have resigned. Every further day with the current government affects all of us dearly…

The Romanian Presidency of the EU Council was also affected. Was it a lost chance?

The presidency was a squandered opportunity, unfortunately. Obviously, the Romanian state bears the highest costs here, but unfortunately, politically speaking, the presidency was a recklessly spent opportunity. And I would like to differentiate here between the political level and the technical one. Our team of experts in the Romanian Permanent Representation has worked very well, from what I have observed, from the discussions that I’ve had with different chancelleries of the member states and with colleagues from there, from the Commission… we had a high-performing team. We were lucky we had this. I know these people personally.

For instance, Ambassador Luminita Odobescu, she also came to Brussels when I was prime minister, and we already started back then preparing the team. At the technical level, we worked well. Unfortunately, however, our political leadership, which was disastrous, did not know how to make use of this high-performing team fully.

The Romanian government did not have a project for the presidency; it did not have clear objectives, it did not aim to have appropriate conclusions on some important dossiers and was practically absent in this period of time. So, politically speaking, this was a lost moment for Romania. Other than that, Romania showed that it has honest and extremely well-prepared people, capable of dealing with huge workloads. And this comes back to the core message of the Alliance 2020 USR Plus: the political class needs to be reformed, so we won’t have to experience incompetent politicians to represent us, but honest, competent people need to be promoted to represent Romania, because they can do this efficiently.

Let’s take party political matters at the European level now. Where will the Alliance 2020 USR Plus find itself? Will it go with Macron…?

We are now having talks to build a new political group in the European Parliament, with parties from the old ALDE faction, but also with new parties that appeared over the last few years. It will be a group situated in the political centre, ideologically speaking, clearly pro-European, which will promote European values and this new wind of renewing politics or the way politics is being done, from East to West, from North to South.

This wave brings new faces in politics, like the ones we have seen now in Romania. Some consider us an ‘anti-systemic party’ because we wish to shake up the status quo and challenge the establishment which currently hinders the development of the country, so we are ‘anti-systemic’ in that sense, but pro-European. I think this differentiates us completely from what is happening in Hungary or in Poland – our new political force wants to change the system, but it’s pro-European. This is what we also wish to promote in this new political group, a political group that wishes to build and strengthen Europe, channelling these energies of determination, youth and collaboration which have all experienced a renewal in many parts of Europe.

Who should be the next Commission president?

The Commission President should be someone who is capable to steer more political currents that wish to strengthen and modernise Europe. This person has to be someone that brings in a political vision to change the EU, because we have to build a new political class in Europe which is deeply connected to the realities in the different member states and in the different regions – and well connected with the citizens.

For the time being, we do not have a European political class, we have politicians coming from the member states, at national level, which only talk about Europe, and that is why we don’t have European policies that are European in the political sense of the word, but only technically speaking. We don’t have  European vision politically speaking, because we did not foster such a political class, which is connected to its citizens, regions and member states. And this is what the next European Commission and the next European Parliament should do.

Most clearly, the next Commission should be a citizen-oriented one. To build the European project starting with the people, with the Europeans. Our political alliance launched a manifesto during the European Summit in Sibiu about the “Future of Europe” and how we see and would like to modernise Europe. And one of the proposals is this: changing the decision-making modalities of the European priorities, which should not stay only at technical and bureaucratic level, or, if you wish, at this high European level, discussed only between EU officials and leaders of the Commission and of the Parliament, we need to connect the citizens to this.

We made this proposal, which can be discussed between the European Semester and the State of the Union speech in autumn, we should organise public consultations together with civil society organisations, with the national parliaments, which would clearly determine annually the priorities the European Commission should have for the next year. Naturally, the starting point should be the five-year-long framework agreement with which the Commission president should go to the Parliament and ask for its approval. But apart from what happens in the five-year election cycle, we need to have the citizens better connected to what is actually happening at the European level. It is only like this that we will build or rebuild the trust in the European project.

Who do you think should be the Romanian Commissioner? Do you think that PSD has the legitimacy to propose the Commissioner after losing the elections?

First of all, they do not have the political legitimacy because they clearly lost the election. From 40%+  going down to 22% puts them in the position of not having the legitimacy to propose the Romanian Commissioner and they have also lost the legitimacy to govern. This is why this government has to leave. Secondly, by appointing the prime ministers and ministers that they have so far, they’re only showing that they do not have the capacities to propose competent and honest people.

If this is their capacity when it comes to using human resources, governing and representing Romania, or at least, going by what they have shown us since the start of 2017, then they should not only leave the government but the political stage completely, because I have not seen anyone in their party capable of taking on responsibilities for Romania.

So, to wrap it up: they neither have the legitimacy nor the competence to propose a Romanian Commissioner. This is another reason to dismiss this government as soon as possible, so that a new majority can propose the Romanian representative and negotiate an important portfolio. Romania holds the presidency of the Council and could have capitalised on this to negotiate an important position for itself in the next Commission.

What will be the effects of the referendum, which was won with a bit over 80% by the YES vote, but which was also a consultative one?

Romania's anti-corruption referendum explained

Besides electing their new European Parliament members on Sunday (26 May), Romanians will be taking part in another vote: a referendum which their president says lets voters express their frustration over corruption.

President Klaus Iohannis called the referendum over the government’s …

It means that the political class and the governing party PSD received a clear signal from the citizens: “Stop using political tricks to reform the judiciary in order to favour some corrupt politicians. Start governing the country in the interest of its people!” In simpler terms: the Romanian people are against amnestying politicians who have been convicted on corruption charges through legislative decisions.

They are against changing legislation overnight through ordinances and that’s why they took the streets 2 years ago. These principles and the outcome of the vote should be implemented in our legislation and the constitution should be changed accordingly and that is why we salute the president’s intention to discuss changes to the constitution – because the constitutional reform is something that we have proposed already 1 year ago.

So we’re happy and salute the fact that the president is in line with what we have advanced from the beginning. Apart from that, we also have proposals that would affect the Constitutional Court. These proposals would assure an independent, professional, modern Constitutional Court.

We also have a proposal concerning the separation of powers and the possibility to dissolve the parliament in certain situations of political crisis – like the one we have now – where we should be able to dissolve the parliament and hold snap elections. Unfortunately, the current constitutional stipulations are very complicated and we should have them changed in this direction. This referendum gives us this possibility. Our colleagues in USR have also contributed to this and suggest we should forbid anyone who has been incriminated on corruption charges to hold any public office.

Will there be any changes that will affect the Romanian diaspora? These seven-hour-long waiting queues were simply unbelievable.

The Romanian diaspora – a force to be reckoned with

A hundred-meter queue stretches on Boulevard du Régent in Brussels where foreign embassies are located. Occasional shouts – “Let us vote!” – pierce through the usually quiet neighbourhood.

What we have witnessed during these elections (and the presidential ones in 2014) is, simply put, a dishonest approach by the Romanian authorities or incompetence at best. There were, indeed, more voting stations opened this time than at the last elections. But they were not opened in places where our diaspora is numerous. There were voting stations that had just a few voting cabins. Two, three, four voting cabins when they could have had at least, six… eight. There were also situations where, despite having a good number of cabins, there were only two or three voting stamps available, so people simply couldn’t vote at the required pace.

So we first need good faith to finally organise elections in such a way that everyone will be able to cast their vote. And for this, too, we need legislative changes. We need to increase the number of voting stations, we need to speed up the voting process, we need to increase the number of cabins and stamps, even having the possibility of extending the vote to two voting days instead of one. We should also think of a more dynamic voting commission, which should work in two shifts and we should also think about improving the vote by correspondence. And finally, we should most definitely analyse the possibility of an electronic vote that is completely secure. All these things clearly need to change and we will change them the moment we have parliamentary majority.

Will you be Romania’s Commissioner again? There are also rumours that you will not take your mandate as MEP but prepare your candidacy for the Romanian presidency.

My project is Romania and in Romania, most certainly. Yes, I will assume my mandate as a Member of the European Parliament, because I did not lie about my intentions when I accepted to be on the list and when I campaigned for an electoral programme. I really believe in our programme. Nonetheless, the programme that we have prepared for the European Parliament is directly connected with our intention and programme to govern in Romania.

My role as an MEP does not exclude my involvement at national level at all, on the contrary: I will be very present in Romania; I will be involved in the upcoming political campaigns and I will be part of the presidential campaign team in one way or another. Most certainly I will be present in the country, I will be part of the electoral campaign and our objective is to have a parliamentary majority and I will run for the national parliament and have the Romanians entrust us to form a new Romanian Government.

This is clearly our final objective: to govern Romania because that’s the only way we can really change Romania. Surely, the presidential role is important, because the president is directly elected by the people. Surely, the local elections are important as well: the mayors, the county presidents are important and the votes that we received on 26 May show that we can have legitimate expectations for key positions in major cities across Romania at next year’s local elections. But our number one objective remains to form a parliamentary majority and to govern Romania. This is why I entered politics and I will reach that objective.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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