Victor Ponta: The ruling PSD in Romania is becoming like Fidesz

Victor Ponta in Brussels on 2 April 2019. [Georgi Gotev]

In a wide-ranging interview, the former Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who has founded a new centre-left force, Pro-Romania, doesn’t mince his words criticising his former party, the ruling PSD. The Party of European Socialists (PES) should, if necessary, show PSD the red card, he says.

Victor Ponta served as Prime Minister between May 2012 and his resignation in November 2015. In the 2014 presidential election, he made it to the second round, but lost to Klaus Iohannis.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior editor Georgi Gotev.

You left the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) and recently created a new party, Pro-Romania, and the latest opinion poll gives this force 9% if elections are held today. Pro-Romania will probably elect MEPs. Which political group will they go to?

I’ve been a social-democrat all my life, and still believe modern social-democracy is the family that I fit in. We have a domestic issue now, if my former party, Mr. Dragnea, Ms Dăncilă, if they have anything in common with social-democracy. That’s why we split from the party, that’s why we gathered a lot of real social democrats in Pro-Romania, including Corina Crețu, our Commissioner, Mihai Tudose, the former Prime Minister, ministers, MEPs, while I hope that PSD will clarify its populistic, nationalistic approach. I cannot be on the same table and on the same page with people who every day criticise and demonise the European Union, like the actual leadership of PSD. So we’ll decide after 26 May, but our national approach will be of course social democracy.

But PSD is already in the socialist family, while you would be applying to join, and they will be probably against…

I have no quarrel with this. I just hope PSD will go back not to be just a formal member of the socialist family, but to behave like social-democrats, which they are not right now. This is in fact the big problem in Romania. We have now a party in government which formally is social-democrat, but is behaving like and applying the same policy as Mr. Orbán, like PiS, the Polish conservatives, and even like Mr. Salvini, although we have no refugees. But this party made the referendum for the traditional family, it is criticising every day the Commission, and most harshly Mr Timmermans [the Spitzenkandidat of the European social-democrats].

I can tell you that Pro-Romania will campaign for Mr. Timmermans in Romania and our MEPs will vote for Frans Timmermans as President of the Commission.

But what is your party’s position vis-à-vis the candidacy of Laura Kövesi for Prosecutor General of the EU? Do you agree with the government that she has been biased as chief of DNA, the anti-corruption agency?

I don’t support the government position, because I think if something wrong happens in Romania, it should be solved in Romania. We have a Romanian candidate, the European Parliament gave its support for the Romanian candidate, and the decision of the Parliament should be applied. What we should change in Romania is not Ms. Kövesi or another person. We should make our justice system more transparent and more effective. This hasn’t changed in Romania, on the contrary. In the last two and a half years, despite promises, the justice system has been a victim of the conflict between Mr. Dragnea, who has been convicted and wants to avoid going to jail, and Ms. Kövesi and President Iohannis who say that those guilty should accept the decision of the judiciary.

But what is your position regarding Kövesi?

My position is that the Romanian government should not fight on European stage domestic fights. I remember, when in 2014 I proposed Ms Crețu for European Commissioner, some Romanian MEPs were fighting against her, for domestic reasons. I said: our domestic fights are one thing, but the European stage is different. It’s wrong to export domestic fights.

Why is Romania so divided? When you were Prime Minister, you were fighting with the then President Traian Băsescu, including over who should represent Romania at EU summits. Now there is a new President, but again there is in-fighting between him and the government. And it’s unavoidable that such domestic divisions would get “exported”…

We have a constitutional weakness. Because our system is presidential, and coming from this unclarified part of our constitution, we will always have conflicts, until we change the constitution. But beyond that, internal political fights become visible at the international scene everywhere, look at Brexit, look at the US, and yet, this is democracy.

The real issue is that since 2007, when Romania joined the EU, we never had a political force that was anti-European. You mentioned our in-fights: we were fighting on everything, except our position in the EU and the pro-European approach. Now is the first time when Romanians are faced with the political choice of being pro-European or anti-European, the latter being put on the table by the PSD leader Mr. Dragnea. By the way, this choice is not based on ideological approach, like in Hungary, or a concrete situation with refugees, like in Italy. It’s based on a very personal issue of Mr. Dragnea, which is his two convictions, and Mr. Dragnea sees the European Commission and Brussels defending justice against him. So it’s for this very personal reason that Romania starts to be seriously divided between people who listen to Mr. Dragnea and accuse Europe of everything, and the others that feel that Europe is good for Romania, and that we should not jeopardise our position because of the personal frustrations of some people.

Moreover, there is a strong media group promoting Mr Dragnea’s anti-European approach, and this is going to be a wound that will take a lot of time to be healed.

So you are saying the personal problems of one politician are fuelling anti-EU sentiments and dividing society?

Actually, it’s not only one politician. The first advisor of the Prime Minister has an eight-year conviction. A lot of local barons have convictions. The owner of the television firm which is supporting Mr. Dragnea and which has three MEPs on the list, already served convictions of three years and a half and four years. All these people, they feel frustrated that they were accused by Ms Kövesi, they feel frustrated that justice convicted them, they feel frustrated that the European Commission and the State Department are not taking their side, but the side of justice.

People don’t understand this, and listening to their messages, they also feel frustrated:  Europe doesn’t let Romania develop. It’s a populistic and nationalistic approach, widespread in Europe, but with this specificity in Romania that it is not based on an ideological approach.

This means that those who are fuelling anti-European sentiments are the clients of Ms Kövesi?

Yes, because she was in charge with this. But look, I was accused by Ms Kövesi. I stepped down, went to the court, got acquitted. I don’t feel any frustration. But I played by the rules. Mr Tăriceanu, the chairman of the Senate, he was also accused, and he was acquitted. Mr Dragnea’s approach is different, it’s like Berlusconi’s: to change the law, to fight magistrates, to fight the European Commission. Which is boosting the anti-European feelings and is dangerous for the future of Romania.

You mentioned the media. Although we are in the middle of the Romanian Presidency, I don’t see Romanian journalists in the pressroom. How do you explain that?

It’s because of the behaviour of our Prime Minister Ms Dăncilă, and of the others: they have one speech in Brussels, or in Madrid, at the congress of the Party of European Socialists, and in Bucharest they have the absolute opposite. Knowing which is the real one, Romanian journalists prefer to follow the discourse in Romania. Here in Brussels there are only lies.

George Orwell called it ‘doublespeak’…

There has never been such a clear doublespeak. Our Prime Minister comes to Brussels, shakes hands with Timmermans, says she’s protecting the justice system, and the same day she returns to Bucharest and goes to Antena 3 television and says the European Commission is protecting the abusive prosecutors.

So you are in opposite camps with PSD…

I’m in opposite camps with the leadership. Most of the PSD voters feel the same.

You attracted many of those voters.

Let’s wait until 26 May.

But your force is credited with 9%, it means something…

It means something, but PSD is still the most formidable political machine in Romania. For the last 30 years, whoever the leader, whatever the situation, they get like 30% of the votes. And there is something new on our political stage: there has never been so much money in politics. According to a law adopted last year, PSD is receiving €50 million from the budget. This is huge.

This is based on the past election result…

Exactly. So these €50 million will be spent on media, on campaigns. There has never been so much money in Romanian politics.

But this puts others at a disadvantage…

A new party like Pro-Romania has zero funds from the budget. It’s very unfair, in the end.

And the same goes for the new +Plus party of Commissioner Cioloș, who is in coalition with Save Romania Union (USR) of Dan Barna. What about them?

The USR plus, the new party on the right, has a very beneficial role, because Romania has been caught between two old parties, PSD on the left, liberals on the right, both unable to reform. So Pro-Romania on the left and USR plus on the right, we are forcing the old parties either to reform, or to disappear. And that is going to be a historic change on our political landscape. I’m happy that USR on the right is doing the same as we are doing on the left.

Tell us about your Serbian experience. You got Serbian citizenship and were the advisor to the current Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. How did it happen?

In 2016-17, while I was not involved in politics in Romania, I was trying to convince Mr Vučić that the European path is the good one for Serbia. I strongly believe that the EU will integrate the Western Balkans, starting from Serbia. I’m also a good friend with the Prime Minister of Albania Mr Edi Rama.

What do you think about the Romanian Presidency? Wasn’t it marred by the Kövesi affair?

The Romanian Presidency was already a missed opportunity, because the country’s leadership has been unable to put on the EU agenda the Eastern Partnership, which includes Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, who need a lot of support from Europe. Moldova is in a very confusing political situation, in Ukraine we are following the elections, Georgia feels a little bit abandoned by Europe. So we missed this.

And on the energy issue: Romania is the gate on the Eastern side of Europe for energy projects, but the country failed to adopt its own legislation for the Black Sea resources. So it’s already a failure. Whatever happens in the next three months, I think everybody here in Brussels they just wait for 30 June, and say, maybe in 14 years Romania will be better prepared. Romania missed a huge opportunity, and I’m very unhappy about this.

How about Russia, especially in the context of Turkey drifting away from NATO, isn’t Romania becoming strategically the most important country in South-East Europe?

Romania is an island on the Black Sea. I don’t mean to offend Bulgaria, but our southern neighbour didn’t invest too much in defence, I’m not criticizing, just acknowledging the facts. Turkey, in its long love-and-hate relationship with Russia, is in a love phase. So Romania is the most advanced position for NATO and the US.

So this is an achievement of the present Romanian government?

If we behave in a reponsible way. Because I don’t see the US administration too focused on the region. I see them focused on North Korea, on Venezuela, maybe Syria. Romania should, together with Poland and the Baltic States, play a stronger role in the alliance. But we are not able, because of this internal fight about foreign policy, to provide a clear and dynamic perspective for NATO. As you know, the internal stage is occupied by the meaningless dispute between the President and the Prime Minister, about moving our embassy to Jerusalem. So it’s another missed opportunity.

Coming back to Brussels politics, I remember your friendly relations with PES leader Sergei Stanishev. When you were a Prime Minister and came to Brussels for a summit, some heads of government were snubbing you, but on the contrary, Stanishev gave you his support…

That’s true.

Do you think he will support Pro-Romania in PES?

First of all, I still consider myself a friend of Sergei Stanishev, and I always appreciate his diplomacy. Second, Stanishev is in charge of PES, not of Pro-Romania. Third, what I expect from Sergei, my friend and the person that I’ve known, it’s not to behave like EPP: to count the number of mandates and to close the eyes in front of principles. If he keeps his eyes open, as he has always done, to the fact that PSD in Romania is breaching all the social-democratic principles, and is becoming a Fidesz-like party, I hope he will use his authority of President of PES, to try to get the PSD back on track, or show them not only the yellow card, but the red card, if this is necessary. This is what I am expecting from my old friend and leader of PES.

Are you going to meet him and tell him this personally?

I have before, and of course I will.

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