Thursday, February 2, 2012

EurActiv: Liberal, socialist leaders join spat over Romania protests


The European Parliament's Liberal and socialist leaders, Guy Verhofstadt and Hannes Swoboda, gave their support to the Romanian opposition during a public hearing over the democratic situation there, as protests continue in Bucharest over an unpopular healthcare reform bill.
The hearing, called ‘The Romanian Democracy - Political abuse and citizens' reactions’ was opened on 31 January with strong-worded statements by Verhofstadt and Hannes Swoboda, the newly-elected leader of the Socialists and Democrats group of the European Parliament.
The hearing took place after weeks of protests in Romania over an unpopular healthcare reform bill and focused on the state of democracy in Romania under the current government.
In Romania, the Social-Democrats and Liberals, together with the Conservatives, form a strong opposition to the current ruling party, the centre-right democrat-liberal party (see background).
“The fact that Verhofstadt showed up and supported them shows that this is something that deserves special attention, the European political groups need the support of the ruling party in Romania,” said a Romanian source in Parliament who preferred not to be named.
“I am worried that there is an increased tendency in Europe towards populism and radicalism, a re-nationalisation of Europe,” Verhofstadt said. “The message everywhere is the same: it cannot continue like that. I think there is a problem. Protests reflect that”.
Corruption
The liberal leader gave a series of examples of international groups, such as Transparency International, which reveled that the corruption situation in Romania had consistently worsened during the years of rule of the Democrat Liberal party (PDL) of President Traian Basescu.
Hannes Swoboda, who leads the Social Democrats in the European Parliament, said the latest developments in Romania were “a dangerous deviation from the principle of democracy”.
He gave an explanation for what pushed Romanians to take to the streets in the past month: "Bypassing parliament and issuing government decrees instead of democratic laws cannot be tolerated. If people realise that the parliament is not heard, they will rightly go onto the streets.”
Romanian liberals are the most loyal MEPs to the Parliament's Liberal group and the country's social-democrats are the third most loyal to the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, according to statistics provided by Votewatch, a democracy watchdog.
This year, Bucharest will be a point of attraction for political groups in the European Parliament, with the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) holding its annual congress there. The European Socialists will also hold their biggest political event there at the end of September.
As a relatively large country, Romania has 33 MEPs in Parliament, compared to only 18 representing Bulgaria. “In Central and Eastern Europe, Romania and Poland are generally considered the most influential countries and at the moment, the European political families have a stake in Romania,” a Romanian source told EurActiv.
Location of public hearing boosts audience impact
Opinion polls show that Romanians trust EU institutions more than their domestic political system. “Romanians think the EU is more honest than the national politicians and usually good things came from the EU in Romania, such as the reform of the judiciary, brought about with the help of the Mechanism for Cooperation and Verification,” the Romanian source said. “The EU is perceived as a guardian of good manners and directions in Romania”.
The public hearing was broadcast on Romanian television channel Antena3 which currently leads in terms of audience, has been most active in covering last month’s protests and which is broadly seen as supporting the opposition.
“For the ordinary Romanian, who does not know which are the responsibilities of the European Parliament exactly, the fact that democracy in their country was discussed in the EP will mean that the situation is getting serious – the social democrats and the liberals played on this, making the EP say it for them,” the source close to the political discussions said.  He also added that the intention of the opposition parties in Romania was to affect the country’s image - for which he said president Traian Basescu holds responsibility.
Intention of hearing was 'not to complain'
“I did not come here with the opposition parties to complain or criticize Romania. I came with three targets: to inform you about facts that we consider a break of European standards of democracy,” said Victor Ponta, leader of the social democrat party in Romania.
Liberal leader Crin Antonescu likened Romania's current regime to a “dictatorship” similar to Syria, adding that the US ambassador to Romania said that “at least people are not being shot in the streets”. The liberal leader also accused Basescu of adopting a Mussolini-like rhetoric. “The Romanian government is more corrupt than ever,” Antonescu said.
Conservative leader Constantin Daniel criticised premier Emil Boc for Romania’s low capacity to absorb EU regional funding - currently the lowest in the EU, at only 3,5% - and said projects are approved very hard because they are offered in a preferential way that encourages favoritism. 
Romanian MEP Traian Ungureanu, member of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group, criticised the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, saying he exceeded his powers by getting involved in Romanian national politics and went over the top by welcoming opposition leader Victor Ponta and Crin Antonescu in the Assembly on 31 January.
“In his capacity as President of the European Parliament he has no moral right to rule in matters of domestic policy and I wonder if it's a gesture worthy of an EP President, " Unugreanu said, cited by Mediafax.
Ungureanu called S&D leader Swoboda an “accomplice” for ”reinforcing the idea that Romania is a country under dictatorship”, the news agency writes.
MEPs who are members of the ruling liberal-democrat party in Romania are expected to send an official complaint to the EP for Martin Schulz’s  “behavior”, which too “massively” supports the Romanian Social Democrat Party, Romanian news agency Mediafax writes.
POSITIONS: 
Sulfina Barbu, Romanian labour minister, also present at the hearing, said: “We need to be in dialogue with the opposition to be able to come up with solutions for their worries because the EU needs member states that are strong and that are bold enough to respect budgetary discipline and to curb populist discourse and movements.”
Cristian Preda, MEP, member of the EPP group in the European Parliament, about Romanian future governance: “We need an intelligent coalition not a huge force”.
Monica MacoveiRomanian MEP, member of the EPP group and former minister of Justice in Romania: “The opposition did not leave room open for debate, did not use the democratic instruments they were talking about. The protests in Romania were for the reform of the political class, she added, “and the parties present here did not mention how they are going to reform it”.
Macovei also raised questions related to “the credibility of those who came to the meeting”. Most of the civil society representatives that the social-democrats and liberals invited to the public hearing in the European Parliament were people who appear constantly on television channel Antena 3, which is widely seen as supporting the opposition.
Liberal leader Crin Antonescu accused the Romanian government of not being "modern" enough and of being "irresponsible". “There should not be a debate on whether there is dictatorship in Romania or not, in the first place, we should not have to do this”.
Social-democrat leader Victor Ponta said they were in the European Parliament “to defend the people who took to the streets in 61 cities in Romania”. He said the demonstrators were not only protesting against economic austerity, but also against the government.
NEXT STEPS: 
  • 2012: local, parliamentary elections
  • 28-29 Sept. 2012: PES (Party of European Socialists) congress in Bucharest, Romania
  • Fall 2012: EPP congress in Bucharest, Romania
  • 2014: Romanian presidential elections
Ana-Maria Tolbaru

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