The illusion generated by Romania’s pro-European political choice has led to a collective blindness towards the country’s backsliding from European values. Increasingly, one of our core security threats comes from within, rather than outside our borders.
Romania’s accession to the European Union and NATO was backed by almost unanimous popular support, and throughout the years the country has maintained its position among the states which held the EU and the US in the highest esteem. One generation after another has learned in school that the Latin origins of the Romanian language and people (through which we are related to France, Italy and Spain, countries that many Romanians call home today) are defining for our national identity. Through the royal family we have become related to Europe once again.
The post-1989 strategic choice Romania made was firmly pro-Western, even during the times of Ion Iliescu and Adrian Năstase, when very little of what was happening in our country was reminiscent of the realities in the EU. The Bucharest-London-Washington axis was not derailed even by Brexit, Donald Trump or Liviu Dragnea. Currently, in the EU Parliament, Romania votes consistently along the lines promoted by the Western Franco-German nucleus, and is methodically avoiding any association with the democratic backslidings of other Eastern European states. Everything in our history and identity is European, and the pinnacle of our post-1989 aspirations was always to be sought in the West.
EU membership has brought us the possibility to work and study in the West. In spite of repeated and considerable pressures on the rule of law and democracy, over the past years Romanians have supported the anti-corruption agenda, whether at the ballot or in the streets through protest. Romania’s presence
at the head of the fastest-growing EU economies has been constant in recent years, its GDP increasing eightfold since the 1990s. We are among the most reliable European countries regarding the NATO defence expenditure pledges.
The forest of backwardness hidden behind the European trees
In such a context, how could one ever suspect that we are anything but the quintessential expression of Euro-enthusiasm? We have fed ourselves with the illusion that the only possible direction was ‘further and further to the West’; that modernisation and Europeanisation are inevitable processes; that we are invulnerable to the problems faced by our neighbours – from the rise of the far-right and the intolerance towards migrants and minorities of any kind, to the slide into authoritarianism, the spread of Russian propaganda and attempts at destabilisation, simply because ‘we are so pro-West and anti-Russian’.
There is another reality represented by a version of Romania that looks more and more different from what Europe really represents structurally and in terms of values and identity.
Notwithstanding these realities which some of us share, there is another reality represented by a version of Romania that looks more and more different from what Europe really represents structurally and in terms of values and identity. The political class is using the pro-European discourse opportunistically, rather than with the purpose of genuinely promoting a set of values to Romanian society. The policies adopted in the past decades have effectively marginalised the people that do not live in large urban centres, and thus see themselves trapped in a context that does not offer them many of the opportunities that promised to be so abundant at the time of the country’s accession to the European Union: a country with families split between those that have left to a seek better income in the West and those that have stayed and have been supported by them, a country in which some of us have prospered because of the new economic trends, whilst others have felt overwhelmed by changes that we did not understand and that nobody prepared us for.
The success of AUR, inconceivable until recently, as well as all the instances of ultraconservative and antidemocratic actions are primarily a consequence of this trend.
The traditional parties have fostered a radical electorate behind their democratic rhetoric
Until the moment the exit poll in December’s parliamentary elections was announced, the Romanian media’s interest in the AUR party was close to zero. The shock generated by the collective realisation that a party unknown to most people was to become the fourth-largest political force in the country generated an avalanche of articles that either presented the profile of the AUR candidates and their most outrageous declarations, or commented in an alarmist tone on the consequences of Romania’s entry in the ranks of the European states with extremist representation in their parliaments. However, all these approaches are distant from the essence of the problem.
The Romanian electorate with sympathies towards populist or nationalist narratives is not new. Although the 9% score obtained by AUR may seem very high, in the parliamentary elections with the lowest turnout since the Romanian Revolution this translated into little more than around 540,000 votes. This number seems less impressive if compared with the one million votes received by PPDD in the 2012 elections, when this (now-defunct) party capitalised upon the ongoing hardships associated by the economic crisis through its staunchly populist discourse.
AUR has achieved prominence because it gives a voice to a part of the population, and promises to fill the void that they feel.
The duplicitous rhetoric used by Romania’s main political parties is one of the reasons why this segment of the population has remained largely under the radar in the past years. Hence the Social Democratic Party (PSD), along with smaller parties such as PRO Romania or ALDE, and even the National Liberal Party (PNL), have adopted a nominally democratic pro-European rhetoric meant to gain the sympathy, or at least the trust, of Romania’s international partners. At the same time, these same groups have not shied away from adopting socially conservative and even antidemocratic positions when this promised some easily obtained electoral points. In fact, such electorates were actively cultivated.
Apart from social values, the main parties have also pushed for policies that led in the end to an uneven, imbalanced development. After three decades when PSD, nominally a social-democratic party, has regularly governed Romania, our country is still at the very bottom of the risk of poverty rankings in the EU: according to Eurostat, in 2018, 23.5% of Romanians were in a difficult or very difficult financial situation. At the same time, although the PNL defines its vision as promoting a ‘respect for diversity’, among others, this party voted almost unanimously in favour of the illiberal 2018 referendum aimed at banning same-sex marriages in Romania. It is also fairly clear that repeated declarations with nationalist and anti-Hungarian undertones by some PNL leaders did not do much in helping promote the party as a defender of liberalism in our society.
Although it may seem that the rise of AUR comes from its clear, simple and ideologised discourse, this dimension comes only second among the factors that have contributed to its success. Although undeniably persuasive and well-adapted to the dynamics of social media, the discourse of AUR only represents a vehicle being used with great effectiveness. First and foremost, AUR has achieved prominence because it gives a voice to a part of the population, and promises to fill the void that they feel. This void is the key, and not the fact that an agile and opportunistic actor has observed a vulnerability and has learned to exploit it. The current excessive focus on AUR, as if it represents a sole and exhaustive expression of political radicalisation in Romania, is moving the spotlight away from the true issue: the practices of the main parties and the failure of their development policies.
Romania has the largest disparities between the regions with the highest and lowest GDP per capita in the entire European Union (the most developed region in our country is 3.6 times more prosperous than the least developed one).
AUR remains the least of our worries
What we are seeing is fundamentally a problem of social exclusion and absence of opportunities. The chronic distrust in the state authorities and moderate political forces, or even the quintessential institutions of representative democracy, stems from their sustained incapacity to generate prosperity. Although not alone in facing this issue, Romania has been performing exceptionally poorly in this chapter, year after year. In September 2020, essential democratic institutions received abysmal trust ratings: only 9.5% of Romanians trusted the country’s parliament, while 13.7% had confidence in the country’s government.
If there were truly a climate of public trust in the country’s institutions, the conspirational and anti-system discourse of AUR could not have resonated in such a way. Their nationalist and illiberal rhetoric lacks rigour if it is not assembled upon a frame of distrust and alienation amongst segments of the society. Unfortunately, the unequal socio-economic evolution of our country has led precisely to this reality.
Between 2014 and 2019, Romania prided itself in one of the biggest GDP increases in the EU, over 40%. In recent years, some areas of the country have experienced a remarkable growth, with standards of living coming to a par with those in Western Europe. According to Eurostat, in 2019 the Bucharest-Ilfov area had a GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) larger than that of cities such as Helsinki or Berlin. The contrasts within the country, however, are enormous. Romania has the largest disparities between the regions with the highest and lowest GDP per capita in the entire European Union (the most developed region in our country is 3.6 times more prosperous than the least developed one). All other regions of our country feature on the lower third of the EU’s development ranking.
Romania has a major social mobility issue as well. According to the 2020 Global social mobility index from the World Economic Forum, Romania is the second most difficult place in the EU to improve your social and financial situation if you are from a low-income background. Only Greece, a country devastated by an economic crisis spanning almost 10 years, fares worse among EU states at this indicator.
Marginalisation – a national security risk
An analysis conducted in 2016 by the Romanian National Institute of Statistics revealed that the counties with the largest percentage of former residents that have emigrated over the shortage of jobs were in the province of Moldova. In Neamț, the number of emigrants almost equals the number of existing workplaces in the county. There is no coincidence that such regions lacking any opportunities have the constituencies where AUR obtained its best results. For as long as the socio-economic developments leave behind winners and losers separated by such a large gap, the conditions favouring the success of nationalist parties will linger on. And as economic and political results are oftentimes attributed to the European Union in the public psyche, the resentment towards a West perceived as not delivering on expectations can be expected to rise (which will also be amplified by parties keen to find a scapegoat for all of the country’s misfortunes).
Abandoning such a large portion of our population to underdevelopment represents a major vulnerability for our country in the face of rising authoritarianism and illiberalism, and therefore poses a structural risk that malign foreign actors will be very keen to exploit in order to slow down and reverse the country’s modernisation and Europeanisation.
Abandoning such a large portion of our population to underdevelopment represents a major vulnerability for our country in the face of rising authoritarianism and illiberalism, and therefore poses a structural risk that malign foreign actors will be very keen to exploit in order to slow down and reverse the country’s modernisation and Europeanisation. When people see themselves systematically neglected by conventional political actors and the institutions that are meant to serve them, they turn their hopes and support to whichever options promising a change. AUR has communicated effectively; it knew who its target-audience was; it has indeed been helped by the context of heightened uncertainty and distrust amplified by the pandemic, and it has exploited the popularity of the church in the countryside to attract the most visible and vocal part of the dissatisfied. However, many more have remained under the diffuse influence of PSD, PNL and their smaller satellites, where they serve as an exploitable demographic that is much larger than the 500,000 votes which AUR won last time.
The Romanian version of the article was published on Adevărul.
About the projectSupported by the National Endowment for Democracy, Political Capital and its partners from Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland, Slovakia and Romania are researching value-based attitudes to foreign policy and authoritarian influence in the European Union’s institutions.