Romania – a student of excellence or poor learner?

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The relations between Bucharest and Brussels are not so bad (photo: YouTube, channel of Romanian government)

Bulgarian media narrative on Romania changed significantly. The recent wave of romanoscepticism in Bulgaria on the occasion of the starting presidency of the EU simply follows the mainstream of Bruxelles, but doesn`t help for the better understanding of what is going on in the region

Vladimir Mitev

This article was published on 12 January 2019 on the Bulgarian section of the site “The Barricade”.

The days before the official start of the Romanian europresidency, which began on 10 January 2019, came together with a wave of negative evaluations and comments in Western European media about the government in Bucharest and the Romanian political elite. Leading Bulgarian media also gave tribune to a number of analysts, who expressed their scepticism towards Romania, similar to the Western European, given that literally until the middle of 2018 Romanians were given constantly as example for successful reform in justice, economy and loyality to the West. The experts now sowed doubts that Romanian presidency will be successful. The analysts also reduced Romania of 20 million people to the person of the strong man in the Social Democratic Party Liviu Dragnea, who is criticised strongly in Western Europe and to the ironised prime minister Viorica Dancila.

The parallel with the Bulgarian europresidency, lauded for its tractability by Jean-Claude Juncker, is natural to be made. Until recently Romania was the country of excellence in the region, because of ”anti-corruption” and its ”awaken civil society”, which ”opposes the thieves in politics”. Now Bulgarians were to live their small media moment of glory as most loyal and responsible representatives of the EU in the region. This change was taking place while Romania was transforming itself into a country, which, according to the interpretations, ”is not looked at with credibility” in European institutions and in the other country-members. A possibility arose that the government in Sofia shines before the European partners, pushing itself away from Romania, with which it had been in tandem for the last two decades. It is expected that Bulgaria will be admitted to the Schengen space until the end of the Juncker commission, while no such announcements have been given to Bucharest.

Let us have no illusions. While the Romanian president Klaus Iohannis met with Donald Trump in the White House in 2017, Romanian media started affirming that Romania begins to de-connect itself fast from the Brussels-imposed tandem of the ”countries of inferior category in the EU”, where it stood with Bulgaria. So the Romanian political elite also has its aspirations for privileged partnership with the West and for subcontracting functions in the region.

The media reflection towards Romania in the beginning of 2019 reminds of the one towards Greece, when it resisted the prescribed treatment of the debt crisis. Then Greeks were often described in European and Bulgarian media as irresponsible, because they resist and destabilize the whole of the eurozone. But it wasn’t pointed out that the Greek debt actually rose as a result of the “treatment”.

The wave of romanoscepticism in Bulgaria media showed once again that we know superficially our neighbours. It seems that there is a political and media elite in Sofia, which is well-connected to Brussels, but doesn’t have deep roots in the region. It turns out that it is easier to compete with our neighbours who is more responsible and more European, retransmitting the Western scepticism towards them, instead of looking at the countries and at their people in the region with our own added value. It is worthy if when we know our neighbours, we don’t remain limited to the satisfaction that we make one thing or another better, or to the pitifulness that we fail as people and institutions in comparison to them. As a part of the EU we could need more cooperation in the European South-East. Not only competition, but cooperation is an European value.

The relations between the EU and Romania

The dialogue between the EU and Romania is not as bad as it seems. Bucharest has its strategic importance for the EU – both in geopolitical and in economic plan. On the other hand, Romania also needs the European business, which gives it an otherwise unattianable dynamics.

But indeed in the last years the social democrats stir rising criticism in Western Europe with their judicial reforms and economic policy. The opponents of the Liviu Dragnea’s party are many and have influence both in the country and abroad. They accuse the social democrats of being anti-European, of returning the country back to socialism or of its attachment to the “evil forces” of Hungary and Poland.

The social democrats declare themselves pro-Europeans. The prime minister – Viorica Dancila, or the strong man in the party – Liviu Dragnea, say that in their capacity of Europeans ask for the right to have a propper opinion, to respect from the European partners, to recognition by these partners of some Romanian interests. The supporters of social democrats’ policies from the last years describe their activities as attempts to correct some excesses and abuses. For example, it is claimed that the fight against corruption was realised on the basis of illegal protocols for collaboration between the secret services and the prosecution, which brought to condamnations of contested legality. Another thesis of the social democrats’ supporters is that the foreign companies – such as banks, have greater return on investment than they do in Western Europe. It happens even though the Romanian citizens are poorer that Western Europeans.

The economic measures of the social democrats

The Romanian ruling coalition uses this feeling of injustice, in order to introduce measures, which help to balance the budget. In the last two years the social democrats` government constantly confronts the problem of low tax collection, which imposes „innovative“ solutions. In the end of December it raised the minimal salary and the minimal pension, introduced ceiling upon the prices of electricity and natural gas, and introduced the so-called „greed tax“ for the financial institutions in the cases when banks` interest rates are above certain level. The license fees for mobile operators and the tax on energy companies were raised a few times, while their nominal value is determined by the turnover of the companies. This was made because turnovers are great, but the profit tax, which companies pay often is much more modest.

Through such measures the government finds important income for the budget. At the same time representatives of the business point out that infringement procedures of the EC are possible, because the measures break the rules in the respective sectors. However, one can see that the measures don’t cover the automotive sector, where there are significant foreign investments. The government even approved state aid of tens of millions euro for various automotive companies at the end of 2018.

We should not forget that after a social democrats` reform from the beginning of 2018 in Romania the employees pay social contributions, without sharing their burden with the employers, unlike Bulgaria. This earlier reform to the advantage of the business was made so that the collectibility of social contributions gets higher. However, it hit the interests of the employees and many saw their net salary going down, even though the gross income got higher. It is a detail, which is often missed, when Bulgarian media compare Romanian and Bulgarian income from the standing point of their gross figures, where indeed there is a growing difference to the advantage of the northern neighbours.

The ambivalent policy towards business can be interpreted as populist in different senses. On one hand in the sense that social democrats are not real eurosceptics and only pretend to be like that. On the other hand, in the sense that the government makes gestures towards its electorate, but doesn’t alter the state of poverty, dependence and underdevelopment in the regions where its electoral base lives.

The confrontation: Bucharest-Bruxelles, government-president

The contradictions in the country and between Bucharest and Bruxelles would probably continue. There are topics for disputes: from the question who will preside some formats of the European dialogue in the following six months – the president or the prime minister, till the lasting desire of Liviu Dragnea for the issuing of an emergency decree for the amnesty of those who were condemned illegally. Apart from political interest, he also has personal interest to insist on such a decree, because at this moment he appeals a verdict against him and will avoid the punsihment. The dialogue between Bucharest and Bruxellles will most likely be active in the next 6 months, without a change in the contradicting interests of the participants in it.

The Romanian contemporary politics has long been marked by the contradiction between supporters and opponents of the social democrats. The citizens of the Romanian cities from the middle class usually see the social democrats as everything that is to be despised in the country – inheritors of the communists, people with rural mentality, traditionalists, local feudals and patrons of clientelistic networks. On the other hand, in the last years there are rising attitudes against Germany and the president Klaus Iohannis, who is an ethnic German.

The differences between the camps and between the politicians, which embody it, would hardly be overcome. In December 2018 a number of events in Romanian politics took place. One of the hot topics were the economic measures. Another was the attempt for overturn of Liviu Dragnea from the position of president of the lower chamber of the Romanian parliament. This activity could probably be explained by the fact the europresidency puts certain limits on what is possible in Romanian politics.

Romanian and the europresidency

In the beginning of the year the president of the EC Jean-Claude Juncker and the prime minister Dancila spoke about ”unity”. The same word was a key word during the discourses of the European and Romanian leaders at the official opening of the presidency on 10 January in Bucharest. Obviously, the EU exerts pressure so that the Romanian presidency passes without political turmoil, which could create difficulties for the functioning of the union. However, it is not sure whether the contradictions of the Romanian internal politics will be able to unfold at a slower motion in the following months. The time is running for the government and for Liviu Dragnea. If they want to continue to rule, they will have to realise their interests in justice, in economy and in other spheres. But whenever they try to protect their concrete interest, they provoke European reaction.

In this context it is noticeable that in Romania one can hear more often the opinion that the presidency is a simple technical activity, that it realizes the will of the Europeans and not of Romanians. In Bulgaria the Bulgarian europresidency was reflected abundantly in media and created the feeling among the people that our country has European mission. Now, as the Romanian europresidency begins, it looks like our expectation for an European mission enters into a new stage – in Bulgarian media Romanians are seen through the prism of Bulgarians’ self-confidence of successful EU presidents and through skeptical West-European eyes.

If commentators and experts were taking into consideration the local context, they would have noticed that the bastion of the europeism in South-East Europe – Bulgaria, failed with the introduction of the system for electronic vignettes (the Romanian system for electronic vignettes is introduced in 2010 and costs around 8 million euro without VAT, while the Bulgarian one has a price of 92 million euro). Some rushed to announce that they “don’t believe” the Romanian presidency will start and that “the EU will have to preside over itself”. Perhaps we will finally notice that neither Romanians were “students of excellence”, as it used to be affirmed until recently, nor we are more successful than them. All the time the political and media winds have been blowing in one or another direction, while we simply distribute the messages of the mother ship, thinking that something happens or changes.

What will happen, when tomorrow the formula of governance in Bruxelles or Sofia changes? Life starts there, where the myths end.

Read in Romanian language!

Read in Bulgarian language!

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