The Bucharest test
20 July 2012
What is happening in Romania? Seen from Brussels and most European capitals, Victor Ponta’s government is abusing its powers by placing its people in key positions in parliament and in the judiciary and by attempting to destitute President Traian Băsescu.
Seen by Romanian conservatives, this is an (almost) gentle coup d'état which could lead to dictatorship. Seen by the Romanian left, it is just a question of rebalancing power to the detriment of a Head of State who had committed abuse himself and who prevented the government from governing.
Nonetheless, recent events are important beyond Romania's borders. This is because, with 21 million inhabitants, it is the seventh largest EU country in terms of population and because the fall of the Ceausescu regime made it a symbol of Europe's struggle for democracy. But it is also because, in this time of crisis, these events further blacken Europe's already tarnished image.
The situation, these days, is often compared with Hungary. But while in Budapest, a party with an overwhelming majority has taken over the levers of power, in Bucharest the struggle is between evenly-balanced camps. While the Fidesz of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán implements an ideological programme, Ponta's ruling Social-Liberal Union (USL) seems to be acting opportunistically in seizing (political and judicial) power wherever available. But beyond these differences, the results are the same: the democratic process seems rigged and that constitutes a challenge to the values on which the European Union is based.
The situation is a sign of the failure of the 2007 challenge set when Romania was admitted to the Union despite delays in implementing a rule of law equivalent to that of its partners. European leaders relied on entry combined with a monitoring process to be sufficient to achieve the desired results.
Unfortunately, the EU remains burdened with a troublesome member while Romanians continue to feel like second-rate Europeans, still barred from entry into the Schengen Area and regularly subjected to evaluation reports pointing out the shortcomings of their country. Thus, this is a double failure which strengthens mutual distrust and makes EU intervention in the current crisis delicate.
The question is not for the EU to take sides with one camp or the other. Romania's political elites, on both sides, have clearly not broken completely with the post-communist temptation towards authoritarianism and collusion between politics and business. The harsh tone of certain Romanian news media demonstrates that the interests of one as well as of the other go well beyond the political scene.
Yet, the Union was right to insist that the July 29 referendum, to confirm or cancel the dismissal of President Băsescu, be held according to clearly established rules. It should be remembered that the Ponta government has been in power since May because the previous one, supported by Băsescu, was weakened by repeated demonstrations against its economic and social policies.
There is thus one actor in this Romanian crisis that has yet to be heard from and whose voice is preponderant: the Romanian people. They will decide a first time on July 29. And a second time during the legislative elections scheduled for next November.
It is by continuing to guarantee that the voting process is carried out smoothly, and by remaining vigilant regarding the balance of power, that Europe can contribute to resolving this crisis. While also proving that it knows how to defend its values.