Can Europe Make It?

The Emperor’s new clothes: identity politics in Romania 10 years after joining the EU

Romania celebrated its first decade as a member of the EU on 1 January 2017. This then is a time for assessing what this decade has meant for the country that still lies, geographically speaking, at 'the margin' of Europe.

Ana Maria Dima
17 January 2017
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Romanian president Klaus Iohannis (right) meets with French president Francois Hollande. PAimages/Vadim Ghirda. All rights reserved.----

"Instead of bringing Europe to us, we have opened the doors for Romanians to 'Europeanize' in western states."

- Vasile Pușcaș, Romania’s Chief Negotiator with the European Union

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Romania celebrated its first decade as a member of the European Union on 1 January, 2017. This then is a time for assessing what this decade has meant for the country that still lies, geographically speaking, at “the margin” of Europe.

A year after the accession, the financial crisis hit the global markets, and any counterfactual to Romania’s trajectory within the EU would effectively have to ignore what is the biggest economic event of this century. In the wake of this mostly celebratory 10-year accession, the legislative elections that took place on 11 December 2017, and the discourse that the different parties articulated to gain the support of their potential voters, has brought forward some of the most pressing issues in Romania’s society.

It has also revealed the fact that the “European identity” which has always taken on a civilizational tone - an aspirational tone - for the largest part of the late 90s and early 00s, is still very much present in our daily understanding of politics.

In the wake of this 10 year celebration, Romania made international headlines, when the Social Democratic Party that won the legislative elections, with more than 45% of the popular vote, nominated Sevil Shhaideh, a Muslim woman to become Romania’s Prime Minister.

The international press reacted accordingly: this would have been “a great first” for Romania and by way of consequence, for the EU. The nomination came at an interesting time, as the continent’s political climate seems to be dangerously, yet steadily, reverting back to an odd game of “identity politics”, helped along by the rise of the far-right and their unsettling nationalist soundbites.

Unsurprisingly then, this nomination can also be seen as an expression of identity politics that are being played out for the highest-ranking jobs in the state - President and Prime Minister, the first a heralded former mayor from the ethnic German minority in Romania, the latter, the first Muslim woman to be nominated for this position in Romania.

A week later, Mrs. Shaidehh’s nomination was rejected by President Iohannis, on grounds of her Syrian husband’s alleged endorsement of the Assad regime, among other things. The underlying reason that has been remarked upon by many political analysts in Romania is that Mrs. Shaidehh, would effectively be under the thumb of the leader of the Social-Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea.

Despite her reputedly solid professional record in both local and central administration positions, the corruption scandals within her party and the fact that the Party’s leader is himself suspected of being involved in a case of corruption, has played to her disadvantage.

One of the main “battles”, then, is fought over the level of corruption in which politicians are thought to be involved in, in the one EU country where according to Transparency International’s 2016 Global Corruption Barometer – citizens are the most likely to think that their members of parliament are highly corrupt.

In the age of symbolic, yet visible re-emerging identity politics battles, this rejection can also take on meanings of denying a high-ranked political role to a woman with a specific religious background, one that in the current political climate is particularly prone to causing quite conflicting reactions. But as has been noted before “it is difficult to explore Romania in the linear, logical narrative familiar to the west”.

In many ways, the “identity politics” which Romanian politics is now also rather oddly turning to, can be looked at as telling of an underlying societal struggle to accept the fully-fledged “EU Member State” identity, which is primarily seen as devoid of corruption and diverse in its representation of different backgrounds. This tension then, highlights how different ethnic backgrounds can be instrumentalized for rather mundane internal political battles.

Identity politics: a new game for Romania

In 2014, Romania witnessed its first minority ethnic German elected as President in a campaign that played on stereotypical identity notes of “fairness” and “thoroughness”, which for a nation that is haunted by the reality and the pangs of corruption, is a sensible “selling point”.

The German speaking-press deemed Iohannis to be considered a “gentleman” in what is otherwise a rough political scene, a description that in a place marred by corruption scandals and often uncouth politicians, can only reinforce deeply ingrained inferiority complexes.

The message sent to the electorate was in firm opposition to his contender, Victor Ponta, then the Social-Democrat Prime Minister of Romania, who, despite appealing to a sense of Romanian pride, is seen as the embodiment of the corrupt system that Romania has been openly grappling with for the past 27 years.

The fact that Mr. Ponta was accused of plagiarizing his doctoral degree and that he has been charged with fraud, tax evasion and money laundering, dating back to his days as a lawyer before becoming Prime Minister, is also one of the ways in which Romanian politicians are associated with corruption, even before being proven guilty of it.

Most recently in the country’s mayoral elections of 2016, Clotilde Armand, a French candidate running for mayor in one of the districts in Bucharest on behalf of the also recently established Save Bucharest Union, has been heralded as “the Frenchwoman” eager to change the face of Romanian politics.

The SBU has since become the Save Romania Union, which has run in Parliamentary elections and managed to get 8% of the vote, and whose platform is by-and-large based on the ‘cleanliness’ of their candidates.

SRU’s members are young, having studied in the EU or the US, having perfected their skills in European institutions in Brussels or in the corporate environment outside Romania, and who are now more than willing to help their society “back home” grow and achieve prosperity.

They present themselves as the new face of politics, eager to change the way in which Romania’s politics is run. The electoral struggle for power, has at times amounted to an ideological if not outright “cultural” clash between Europeanized Romanians, i.e. those who either through education or professional experience have lived in western Europe, and those who have only lived, worked and studied in Romania.

The tonality of superiority that the debate took at times, strung the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ chords with an additional layer, that of a form of ‘westernized superiority’ reminiscent of the discourses that were quite present in the early 90s when a return to democracy and civilization were the heralding messages.

The undertone of the “better” European from within the two categories, is usually one that favours those who have somehow been “cleansed” by an experience abroad, rather than those potentially “marred” by corruption and staying “back home.”

The concrete social and economic tensions that stand behind potentially misunderstood “identity politics” struggles are not unique to Romania. Much like in the rest of Europe, resorting to the symbolic, yet important topic of identity, ignores many problems that are much more direct. Romania is quite a peaceful culturally and ethnically mixed society, although undoubtedly unjust at times.

In a Europe which seems eager to return to identity politics, vigilance would be the sensible way to go in the interpretation of identity and its use in internal political games.

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