Romania’s position and status within the EU are never far from controversy. The country has been one of the most Europhile member states since it joined in 2007 but, equally, one of the most heavily criticized for failing to stamp out corruption. Similarly, in recent months its left-wing government led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) has adopted a nationalist rhetoric just as it is running the EU presidency for the first time. It has embarked on a controversial reform of the justice system over which Brussels has voiced concerns that it will undermine the rule of law in the country and which has brought thousands, including magistrates, out onto the streets in protest.
Its Presidency has so far achieved notable results in advancing files such as copyright, the internal market for natural gas and establishing a European Labor Authority. The PSD is actively collecting the laurels back home, keen to prove wrong those who have criticized the government’s ability to take over the Presidency from Austria in the first place – including President Klaus Iohannis, a Liberal who is constantly at loggerheads with social democrat prime minister Viorica Dăncilă.
Romania might also give Europe its first European Public Prosecutor, Laura Codruța Kövesi (if not by active endorsement by her country’s government, then at least by nationality). At the same time as Romania chairs working groups in the Council, the country’s justice minister is using all means to block Kovesi’s appointment, and MEPs from the ruling coalition used mass e-mail shots in the European Parliament to spread (dis)information about Kövesi. It’s obviously not working as the EP’s powerful conference of presidents has just endorsed her as front-runner for the post.
The European elections in Romania will take place against this tense, unstable background, not long after the country plays host to the special summit in Sibiu on May 9 that is supposed to begin charting the EU’s future post-Brexit. It is already shaping up to be a key test for the ruling PSD-ALDE coalition.
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Latest polls suggest the election is going to be a tight race, with the ruling PSD set to be neck and neck with the National Liberal Party (PNL) at 22.7% vs 22.6% of the intended vote (compared with the 2014 result of, respectively, 37.6% and 16%).
But new players on the Romanian political scene are likely to change the balance. The coalition formed by Save Romania Union (USR, opposition) and the freshly launched PLUS (by former Prime Minister and EU Commissioner Dacian Cioloș) come in third with 17.9% of the intended vote.
Their proactive and pro-European campaigning across the country may well yield higher results in future polls, with the public opinion likely to swing in the favour after the Central Electoral Bureau initially rejected the coalition’s common list, deemed as a political move by many.
There is contention on the left, with two new movements taking shape: Pro Romania, launched by former PM Victor Ponta (at 13.4% of the intended vote in recent polls) and Demos, launched as an alternative to the PSD. In its manifesto, Demos says it is fighting for a Europe that offers dignity and equality. It certainly walks the talk, as it is the only party so far with a strong female presence (9 out of 12 candidates).
Although his party has not yet announced its official list, PSD leader Liviu Dragnea wants to have “a list of patriots that fight for Romania, support more EU funds and get involved in promoting the major interest of this country”. Some of the names articulated in the press so far include current ministers such as Rovana Plumb (Minister of EU Funds) and Carmen Dan (Minister of Interior Affairs), current MEPs seeking reelection such as Dan Nica (S&D, ITRE), Ioan Mircea Pașcu (S&D, EP Vice-President), Victor Bostinaru (S&D, AFET), Emilian Pavel (S&D, EMPL), Claudia Țapardel (S&D, TRAN) and Gabriela Zoană (S&D, AGRI Vice-Chair), or Victor Negrescu, who is both an ex-MEP and an ex-Minister. So far, it looks like the PSD will have the same stance and messaging in Brussels: lauding the PSD and criticizing EU interference.
The PNL is also finalizing its list, selecting from the 49 candidates registered in the internal primaries. PNL President Ludovic Orban has said that four current MEPs are very well placed in the race (such as Adina-Ioana Vălean, ENVI chair) but it seems that none of them might head the list. Instead, Rareș Bogdan (journalist) is set to be on pole.
In an interesting move, the junior ruling party, ALDE, has announced a separate list from the PSD. MEPs Norica Nicolai (ALDE, PECH) and Renate Weber (ALDE, EMPL) feature high on it, so they are likely to return to Brussels for another term. ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, not to be confused with Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) has said this move would allow them to be more effective in their campaigning.
What about the current Berlaymont tenant?
The current Romanian Socialist Commissioner, Corina Cretu, oversees Regional Policy. In her mission letter from Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker back in 2014, she was asked to propose ways of boosting the absorption of available funds by Member States. Throughout her mandate, she has not shied away from encouraging the Romanian government to improve its absorption rate, at the expense of being criticized by her own party, the PSD.
Crețu has been distancing herself gradually from the PSD, ultimately announcing that she will join Victor Ponta’s Pro Romania party. As a frontrunner on Pro Romania’s party list, there is a possibility that Cretu will return to Brussels (polls suggest PRP will win three seats)
The government led by Viorica Dăncilă has so far not nominated anybody to serve as the country’s next Commissioner. The EU Presidency may be an opportunity for some within the PSD to be handpicked closer to the EU elections but Romania’s politics are so volatile it’s anybody’s guess.