EU country briefing: Romania

Romania [Robert Steenland]

The following article is a part of a series of brief country profiles for the EU-28 ahead of the European elections in May.

Romania, together with Bulgaria, missed the first wave of the EU’s eastward expansion in 2004. The two joined the bloc in 2007 but have been placed under supervision to monitor their progress in the rule of law and fight against crime and corruption.

Romania actively seeks membership of the Schengen area and hopes to adopt the common currency by 2024. The country currently holds the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

With a population of almost 20 million, it represents around 4.4% of all EU citizens (without the UK). Romania will elect 32 (4.2%) out of the 750 Members of the European Parliament (MEP). At the European Parliament elections in 2014, the turnout in Romania was 32.44%, below the EU average of 42.6%.

While more people in Romania believe their EU membership is a good thing (49%) rather than a bad thing (21%), this is still low compared to the EU average (62/11). In addition, 68% feel like they are EU citizens, which is close to the EU average of 71%. Moreover, 55% of people support the monetary union and common currency.

Economy:

Romania has in recent years enjoyed an economic boom, growing 4.6% on average annually (real GDP) between 2014-2018 (including a stunning 7% in 2017), which is more than double the EU average (2.1%).

The latest European Commission’s (EC) autumn and winter forecasts do suggest a deceleration as it is expected to expand “just’’ 3.8% in 2019 (although still double the 1.5% EU average) and 3.6% in 2020.

Despite these figures, Romania has a long way to go to catch up with other Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU before them. Its total GDP was €187.5 billion in 2017, around 1.4% of total EU27 (without UK) GDP.

Romania recorded a real GDP per capita of €8,300 in 2017, the EU’s second lowest (after Bulgaria) and roughly one-third the EU28 average (€27,700). In purchasing power standards (PPS) the per capita GDP corresponds to 63% of the EU28 average.

The unemployment rate was expected to be just 4.2% in 2018 and drop further to 4.1% by 2020, far below the EU28 average of 7% (2018) and 6.3% (2020), showing the tightening of Romania’s labour market. This is in part due to a total of 3.4 million Romanians having left the country since 2007, representing 17% of the population.

Despite the low overall jobless rate, youth unemployment stood at 16.2% in 2018, above the EU28 average of 15.6%.

Political context and direction

Romania’s current political framework is a semi-presidential representative democratic republic settled in 1991, when the new constitution replaced the single-party communist rule with a democratic system.  

The most important political figures are the resident, who is the head of state and the prime minister, who leads the government.  In practice, prime ministers do not tend to serve long in Romania’s volatile politics and are often forced out, especially in recent years. The President represents Romania at EU summits. 

Corruption remains a major problem in Romania, which is still seen as one of the most corrupt countries in the EU: within the EU, only Hungary, Greece and Bulgaria rank lower on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.

The main parties that have dominated Romania’s political scene since 2004 are the centre-left PSD and centre-right PNL. They briefly cooperated in an alliance (2011-2014) headed by Victor Ponta and won 2012’s parliamentary elections.

However, the alliance broke down and the PSD and PNL faced off as rivals in 2014’s presidential elections in which then Prime Minister Ponta, backed by the PSD, competed with Klaus Iohannis, backed by PNL, who eventually won.

The presidential elections drew mass protests after Ponta’s government was criticised for influencing the elections by preventing the diaspora from voting in the first round. The civil mobilisation helped Iohannis stage a remarkable comeback and win the second round. 

Ponta’s term as prime minister ended in 2015 over a nightclub fire in Bucharest, blamed on a lack of safety standards enabled by corruption. This triggered mass protests that brought down the government, after which a new technocrat government led by Dacian Cioloş was appointed by President Iohannis.

However, it was still the PSD that easily won the most votes in 2016’s parliament election and made a coalition with the new liberal ALDE party. This meant the end for prime minister Cioloş who was supported by the PNL and the new anti-corruption party Save Romania Union (USR), which broke through in the same elections.

In recent years, protests have continued, including over economic issues (e.g. strikes over wages or tax and salary regulations). More recently, religious issues also mobilised huge crowds, as seen by anti-abortion rallies in late 2017.

To exploit these issues and attract the conservative vote, the PSD-ALDE government organised a referendum to ban same-sex marriage in Romania’s Constitution. However, the referendum failed as it did not meet the turnout threshold.  

Romania’s politics has been particularly volatile in recent years: Prime Ministers Sorin Grindeanu and Mihai Tudose lasted just 176 and 201 days, respectively,  before they were ousted by their PSD own party in 2017 and 2018.

Viorica Dancila took over and became Romania’s first female prime minister. Despite this, she was little known and considered as a pawn of PSD party leader Liviu Dragnea.

Dragnea was unable to become prime minister in 2016 because of electoral fraud convictions and high-level corruption. He is alleged to run the government behind the scenes as the country’s illiberal strongman, and has sought to reverse anti-corruption legislation.

In June last year, the Romanian Parliament approved laws to hamper anti-corruption efforts. After the government was criticised for backsliding on the rule of law, both Dancila and Dragnea have increasingly expressed anti-EU rhetoric.

Anti-EU rhetoric has been rare on the Romanian political scene and seems particularly odd at a time when the country is presiding over the Council of the EU.

Dragnea played the discrimination card, declaring that “Romania will no longer accept being treated as a second-rate country”. During a meeting in the European Parliament, Dancila stated: “I am not here to give account. I request respect for Romania.”

Nonetheless, an electoral defeat of the PSD seems inevitable. First, former Prime Minister Ponta (who left the PSD) created a new centrist party dubbed PRO Romania, which has taken over some of PSD’s support.

Then there are the continued anti-corruption protests, including over the dismissal in 2018 of the chief prosecutor of Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate, Laura Codruța Kövesi. 

The government also imposed judicial sanctions on Kövesi to prevent her from becoming the first EU chief prosecutor, after she was picked as the top candidate by the European Parliament. It lifted the sanctions after pressure from the EU.

Finally, another new party, led by (yet another) former prime minister, Cioloş, has also joined the fray and now heads the anti-corruption social liberal Freedom, Unity and Solidarity Party (PLUS).

For the EP elections, Cioloş made an alliance (‘‘Alliance 2020’’) with the existing liberal anti-corruption party USR. The alliance was initially rejected by the Central Electoral Bureau, before the Romanian High Court annulled this decision.

Finally, the Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis seems not to have given up completely and he organised a referendum on justice to take place on the same day as the European election.

The referendum will have two themes: a ban on the use of amnesty or pardon for corruption convicts and a ban on the use of emergency ordinances, or OUG, in the implementation of justice reform. This is because PSD tried in January 2019 to decriminalise some corruption offences, including abuse of office, defined as officials not doing their jobs properly and causing damage.

This move is seen as strategic, to make people vote more than in other elections. It remains to be seen if it was successful or not.

Overall, the EP 2019 elections in 2019 will be critical for the country as the Romanian party system is fragmenting, the PSD is declining and many (new) parties are competing in the EU elections for the first time, alone or in coalitions.

Predictions

According to a recent poll, the ruling PSD is expected to lose. Whereas it had 38% of the votes in 2014’s EP elections, this could go down to 27%, corresponding to 10-11 MEP seats for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

At the same time, the PSD’s coalition partner the liberal ALDE is competing for the first time and is expected to win 9% of the vote, resulting in 3-4 MEP seats for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE).  

The main opposition party, the PNL, which has been gaining support in recent months, is expected to win 26.3% of the vote, which could translate into 10-11 MEP seats for the European People’s Party (EPP).

The anti-corruption Alliance 2020 USR-PLUS is expected to win more than 16% of the vote, or 7 MEP seats. It is not clear which European political group they will join. US leader Dan Barna has described his force as close to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche.

Ponta’s Pro-Romania party is credited at 9%.

The centre-right UDMR representing the Hungarian minority, as well as the centre-right PMP, could also snatch a few MEP seats each for the EPP if they pass the 5% electoral threshold.

Nonetheless, given the political volatility, the anti-corruption protests and the increasing anti-EU rhetoric by PSD leaders, the dynamics could change further.

Much will depend on turnout and on whether the PSD manage to mobilise its voters. But the current events around Kövesi and the government’s attempt to block her could also prompt people to vote en masse against the governing coalition.

One thing is sure, the European elections could be the first step in another re-ordering of Romania’s political scene and pave the way for a presidential election in December 2019.

Simona Brăileanu works as an evaluation and research junior consultant in EU policies. She holds a master’s degree in International Relations and Multi-level Governance.

Andra Banea works as an evaluation and research project coordinator in international development and EU policies. She holds a master’s degree in international Relations and Multi-level Governance.

Robert Steenland works as an evaluation and research consultant in EU policies, as well as an analyst in EU politics.  He holds a double degree master in European Governance.

More information on Romania and the European elections at EUelectionsRomania.com

[Edited by Georgi Gotev]

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