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The Conclusions from the Referendum in Romania

Published on , , Zagreb

On July 29th Romanian citizens were invited to participate in something unusual - a referendum on the request for impeachment of the legitimately elected for a second term right-wing President Traian Basescu. In the middle of this request for impeachment of the president, he himself with controversial biography and behaviour, is the young and new socialist Prime Minister Victor Ponta - in power since May. The parliament has voted to suspend Basescu's term with the motive that he was exceeding his powers and was meddling with the daily work of the government. The culmination of the conflict between Basescu and Ponta was the last and crucial from a European perspective summit of the EU leaders in Brussels on June 29th, for which the two political opponents were unable to agree who should represent the country.

The dispute was moved to the field of the Constitutional Court which ruled that Romania should be represented by the head of state. In principle, these summits are designated for the heads of state or government, meaning - for those who possess the real executive power in order to apply in practise the decisions taken at a European Council. According to some state structures, this function is embodied in the president (France) and in others in the premier (most of the EU member states). In spite the court's ruling, Victor Ponta took a unilateral decision to go for the summit, thus creating a dangerous precedent and confusion in Brussels. Traian Basescu decided to stay in Bucharest to avoid disgrace.

The conflict between the two was threatening to go out of control and to deepen the political crisis in the country in a very important moment for Romania - when additional efforts were needed in order the economy to be stabilised (under treatment of the IMF but with good indicators) and when the European Commission was expected to publish its summary of the five years of functioning of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) in the area of justice and home affairs, with which Romania (together with Bulgaria) was accepted in the EU in 2007. As was expected, the political crisis cast a shadow over the five-year efforts of the country to reform its judiciary and to impose rule of law. The report focused strongly on the developments in the past few weeks in the context of the fears that the crisis is a symptom of a serious shaking of democracy.

Premier Victor Ponta was urgently called in Brussels where he had meetings with the chiefs of the main European institutions - the Council, the Commission and the Parliament. All were unanimous that Romania had to go back on the path of rule of law and to begin tackling its real problems. Ponta promised that Romania would not disappoint anyone but emphasised that the referendum was legal and that everyone should wait for the results. In the meantime, however, the Romanian scandal moved in Brussels as well, where sharp exchange of attacks began between the big political families - the European People's Party (EPP) and the Party of the European Socialists (PES) - a battle that took place in the European Parliament too. Right-wing EPP began a blame game with the socialists, accusing them of being too soft to Victor Ponta, just because he is one of their own, while the left responded that the EPP had its sins, too, to answer for - an attempt to keep silence on the quite identical offences of Hungarian PM Victor Orban.

The referendum

On Sunday, July 29th, as unusual the referendum was so the results from it were odd. Only 45.9% of the Romanians went to the polls, thus making the vote invalid. In order for the results to be acknowledged, at least half of those eligible to vote should have participated. This in practise left Basescu in power although this is not a good news for anyone, because of those almost 46% Romanian voters over 80% voted in support of the impeachment. Although Prime Minister Ponta immediately admitted defeat, saying that no democratically minded politician would dare not to accept the will of the people, the results in fact pour more water into his mill because they clearly show that a large part of the Romanian citizens no longer like the political veteran Basescu and this could feed Ponta's appetite to continue, although in a lower profile, his battle with him.

The European reaction

The EU institutions are in general wrapped in a vacation idleness, which is why most active were the European political parties. EPP leader Wilfried Martens said that "irresponsible political actions do not belong in the European Union and are not tolerated by the European institutions and the international democratic community". He called on the government to return to responsible actions in the most urgent way and to implement all the measures, requested by the European Commission in terms of rule of law and independence of the judiciary. The statement did not miss to attack the socialists and to confirm support for Basescu, who is from the right-wing family.

PES, whose leader is former Bulgarian PM Sergey Stanishev, focused on the fact that a large part of the Romanian voters voted in support of Basescu's impeachment. Nonetheless, the party vowed that it would closely monitor the events in Romania and will contribute for the strengthening of democracy and respect the rule of law. "Now it is important that all institutions unite in their efforts in solving the social and economic problems of the Romanian people, and on overcoming the difficulties inherited from the previous government", is said in the statement of PES.

The Greens, as usual, were most eloquent in their reaction. The co-presidents of the group of Greens and European Free Alliance in the European Parliament, Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, state that an end must be put to the political circus. The two politicians call the EU monitoring to continue and appeal to the European Parliament to review its assessment in the autumn. Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit also ask a special fact-finding mission to be sent to Romania to assess the respect of democratic values and the rule of law. "It is also crucial that threats to democracy in EU member states - whether Romania, Hungary or elsewhere - are treated as priorities for the Union as a whole. We must not become bogged-down in a tit-for-tat between centre-left and centre-right political families who are blinded by perceived loyalty to members of their clans", the statement reads.

The appeal of the coalition between the Greens and the European Free Alliance violations of democracy in the EU to become a priority for the Union, is reflected in the proposals for amendments in the report on enlargement of Greek left-wing MEP Maria Eleni Koppa, where Hungarian and Portuguese MEPs propose the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU to be equipped with extended powers to follow EU members as well, not only non-EU members, and when finding flaws of democraticsm to impose the same monitoring on a country as that in Bulgaria and Romania. The report is expected to enter the plenary this fall.

The Hungarian connection

The situation in Romania goes in parallel with fears of infidelity to democracy in Hungary. A few days ago (July 27) PM Victor Orban was quoted by Hungarian media to propose a replacement of democracy with a stronger hand. Orban's precise words, as translated to me by my Hungarian colleague Szabolcs Vörös, were: "The collaboration is not a question of intention but force. There are maybe some countries where it doesn't work so - e.g. the Scandinavian countries - but such half Asian people like us can only collaborate when there is power. It does not disclose consultation and democracy but there must be a central collaboration which can be deducted from the country's historical experiences. (...) We hope that there won't be any need to institute new political systems instead of democracy but there must be new economical systems and concepts".

As the Hungarian journalist wrote to me, whom by the way I met in Bucharest last year, "when I first heard these words I instantly looked for the context - thought it might have some reason why he made these comments. But no. Even the context cannot explain anything and the few sentences above was too much, even for me. I still think that he [Orban] works for Hungary's interest but being an EU-racist is not the exact part of it. [...] I won't say that we are heading towards totalitarianism but our democracy is definitely collecting Eastern-European attributes - day-by-day".

Conclusions

It is very important what conclusions will be drawn from the referendum in Romania and from the situation in Hungary. It is a fact that these countries are turning into a pain for the EU in a moment when it has pretty enough serious problems of its own. For me, however, is important that the EU reacted in time and sharply enough, according to its capabilities, against the encroachments on democracy. This is extremely important because it sends a message both inside and outside. The question is, though, how will the EU continue to handle this issue.

It is clear that Hungary and Romania will not be the only countries which for over 20 years of transition from communism to democracy and market economy is natural to zigzag and leave the tracks. Bulgaria as well is not an example of successful transition. But there are good examples, such as Poland. This clearly shows that the European integration is indeed a strong boost for saving countries from the infection of totalitarianism and lack of freedom. This is why it is important that countries, once accepted in the EU, as well as those that are to join in the future, to be carefully nursed until they reach a solid and sustainable level of democraticsm and freedom.

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