For Romanians, EU Membership Has Brought Many Things, But Not an End to Corruption

  • Graham Scott

On a cold, dark night in February 2017, the European Union (EU) flag was illuminated in Bucharest’s Victory Square. But this flag was not made of silk flying over a spotlight; rather, it was a flag brought to life by the flashlights and colored paper of 3,000 Romanians who had gathered on the 27th consecutive day of protests.

Citizens came out to demonstrate against the Romanian parliament’s executive order to decriminalize corruption by officials in office for amounts less than $48,500 and halt all pending corruption allegations. Although the government had earlier rescinded the order, Romania still experienced its largest protests since the fall of communism in 1989, peaking at people on February 5. Since February, Romania has experienced successive waves of protest, each time occurring in response to attempts by the Social Democratic Party (PSD)-led government to weaken corruption penalties, anti-corruption efforts and the independence of the judiciary.

IRI’s most recent polling in Romania finds that these protesters are not a vocal minority but a voice of the majority. Our data show that Romanians almost universally see corruption as widespread and at the forefront of their concerns. A drastic 93 percent of respondents answered that corruption is either very or somewhat widespread and it was ranked second in a list of the most urgent problems facing Romania today. Specifically, corruption was most frequently cited as the most important reason democracy is not functioning well in the country.

The problem of corruption looms large in the minds of Romanians, but who do they believe is responsible for addressing it? Are the widespread protests a sign that Romanians feel they need to take matters into their own hands?

While IRI’s polling showed that Romanians see themselves as holding significant responsibility in the fight against corruption, respondents cited the country’s political leadership as the most important party to effectively address corruption. President Klaus Iohannis campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and has largely sided with protesters against the parliament. However, President Iohannis bowed to pressure from the justice minister of the PSD-led government and fired Laura Codruta Kovesi, the head of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) on July 9, shortly after IRI fielded this poll. When asked “what is the most important reason democracy is functioning well in Romania,” a greater number of respondents answered Kovesi and the DNA than the Government and the President combined. While 48 percent of respondents saw fighting corruption as a priority for President Iohannis, only six percent of respondents were satisfied with the way he has handled his job, while a total of 22 percent were not satisfied at all.

Romanians also see the government as a whole failing to tackle corruption. In IRI’s poll, 86 percent of respondents answered that the government is not doing enough to tackle corruption. In sum, Romanians believe the institutions they see as most capable of addressing corruption as having largely abdicated their responsibility.

Romania is ranked by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt EU member states. Protesters’ use of EU flags in marches suggests their frustration with the juxtaposition of the Union’s principles of judicial independence with the widespread government corruption they see in Romania. The people on the streets seem to be asking, “why can’t our country look more like the rest of the EU?” Indeed, IRI data indicates that a majority of Romanians are western oriented. Sixty-nine percent of respondents strongly agree that Romania’s interests are best served by maintaining strong relations with the EU, while only 35 percent answered the same for Russia. Similarly, 85 percent of respondents said EU membership is a good thing for Romania.

A majority of respondents cited economic funds and opportunities as the greatest benefits EU membership brings to the country, although 24 percent of respondents did select “provides a counterweight for more democracy in the country” as either their first or second choice. More than just perception, the EU 7.630 billion euros in Romania during 2016. Such funding includes programs targeted at lowering youth unemployment, supporting farmers and modernizing infrastructure.

Much as the twinkling blue and yellow lights of the 3,000-strong EU flag glimmered through that dark night in February 2017, the benefits of EU membership continue to permeate the darkness of Romania’s corruption. However, with corruption continuing after ten years of EU membership, Romanians may not see the light much longer. It is up to the EU and Western states to continue to pressure the Romanian government from the outside as protesters work from the inside to end the country’s corruption. Success will lead to greater prosperity and an uncompromised democracy for Romanians, while the West will gain a closer Eastern European partner in an increasingly uncertain neighborhood.

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