Klaus Iohannis is an eastern EU politician who fits in with western European politicians

An interview about the political ambitions of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis after the end of his second term, the importance of Iohannis to Western European powers, his positioning in the context of the Baltic politicians running for positions in NATO and the EU, the attitude of Romanians towards him and the attitude of different political blocs in Romanian politics towards him

Georgi Markov, BNR, 7 March 2024

The Bridge of Friendship, 9 March 2024

On 7 March 2024, as part of the afternoon commentary block “Something More” on Bulgarian National Radio’s Horizon emission, host Georgi Markov interviewed Vladimir Mitev, editor of Radio Bulgaria’s Romanian section, about the political ambitions of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis after the end of his second term as head of state. The conversation took place during the second day of the European People’s Party forum in Bucharest – a clear sign of support for Klaus Iohannis, who is a key figure in the Romanian EPP member party, the National Liberal Party. 

Vladimir Mitev explained that Klaus Iohannis enjoys the trust of Western European powers and at the same time comes from a country in the eastern part of NATO and the EU, and this may give him some advantages for the positions of Eastern European candidate for NATO Secretary General, European Commissioner for Defence or High Representative for Foreign Policy, because amid the Baltic hawks on Russia he seems a more moderate person. The conversation also touched on the dissatisfaction of Eastern European elites with the attitude of Western Europeans towards them, as well as the attitude of Romanians towards Iohannis. Finally, Vladimir Mitev gave a brief overview of the emerging blocs in Romanian politics and their attitude towards Klaus Iohannis.

Below you can listen to the interview with subtitles in English and read its transcription:

The Congress of the European People’s Party held in Bucharest was full of expectations not only for the member parties of the European People’s Party, but also for the political elite in Bucharest, as this meeting took place in an important year in terms of the upcoming elections in Romania. I am thinking of 2024. Have these hopes been fulfilled and what exactly was the support of the representatives of Europe’s largest political family sought for? We will seek the answers to these and other questions in the studio with our colleague Vladimir Mitev from Radio Bulgaria’s Romanian editorial office. You know that he has been following the political and public life processes in Romania for years. Hello.

Hello.

So, as soon as it was announced that the Congress of the European People’s Party will take place in Bucharest, Romanian MEPs said that this forum is considered a sign of solidarity from the European Union towards Romania and the countries that are in the vicinity of Russia’s war in Ukraine. To what extent were the expectations of the Romanian political elite justified for this EPP forum event?

We can see that on a symbolic level this event certainly has a certain significance. A declaration was adopted expressing support for Romania’s full accession to the Schengen area. So, in theory, there is a document that the Romanian political elite can boast about. This document was also approved by the Austrian side.

However, I think the main relevant point here is that the choice of Bucharest as a location is linked to the figure of Klaus Iohannis, who this year ends his second term and ten years as President of Romania. And clearly Iohannis has some political ambitions or is trying to compete for a position, which might be worth seeing what that will be. And, in my view, this is the direction in which we should look, first of all, for the answer to your question: the political capital and the symbolic support that Iohannis receives as host.

You mentioned that President Iohannis is, so to speak, the main beneficiary of this forum in terms of political capital. Recently, his candidacy for NATO Secretary General was also announced. Can we say what are President Iohannis’ political ambitions now, after the end of his mandate, and what are his opportunities, his qualities, his merits to take a higher position at European level now? That is, in the new leadership of the new European Commission.

There are different views on whether it is really realistic for Iohannis to become, for example, Secretary General of NATO. We know that Mark Rutte is the leading candidate for this position. He has the support of Western European countries. If I am not mistaken, Free Europe Romania wrote that twenty out of thirty-one NATO members support Mark Rutte in one form or another.

However, it is known that the eastern part of NATO seems to have its own opinion and its own understanding. And perhaps that is why the role of Iohannis becomes more important. 

It should be remembered that Iohannis’ rule in Romania has been associated with a turn towards Western Europe. Traditionally, Poland and Romania had always been somewhat in sync until then, but after Iohannis became president, Dacian Ciolos and other figures who were closer to Western Europe came to power in Romania. A lot of Western European investment started coming into Romania. So one can make a certain assumption that Klaus Iohannis is acceptable to Western European politicians. And maybe these are connections that have a certain trust built up over the years and therefore he can play a certain role for somebody.

When we talk about the political ambitions of the current Romanian president, I can’t help but ask you how exactly these political ambitions that analysts are currently linking to the post of NATO secretary general or the future defense commissioner, a project that the current president, Ursula von der Leyen, has already announced, how exactly do these political ambitions look in the context of Politico publications, according to which countries in the eastern part of NATO and the European Union want to have, let’s say, some kind of greater share in the distribution of western leadership positions.

Yes, indeed, possible candidates from the Baltic states have been announced. If I am not mistaken, Radoslaw Sikorski could be a possible candidate for the post of Defence Commissioner. How could Iohannis be useful in this case?

Perhaps I should remember that at some point after the war in Ukraine, there was again this division between Poland and Romania. In the sense that Poland took a more definitive line on military support for Ukraine, alongside the UK. While Iohannis visited Kiev with the leaders of Germany, France and Italy. These are Western European countries that are some of the biggest foreign investors and investors in Romania. And, in fact, even then, Iohannis played a certain diplomatic role – he showed that Western European countries have support from the Eastern part of the European Union as well. And maybe this is relevant here too, because the Baltic states have a more acute position towards Russia. And Western Europe traditionally had quite good economic relations with Russia until before the war. So maybe Iohannis could be the kind of figure that is acceptable – on the one hand, he comes from the East, on the other hand, he has the trust of Western European countries, which we see manifested in the EPP forum in Bucharest.

But also, in some of the Eastern European countries, there still seems to be a feeling that there is prejudice against them from the big Western European powers. This question can also be taken in the context of what I said – how likely is it that the President of Romania will be Secretary General of NATO or possibly Defence Commissioner in the future in the new European Commission when it is formed after the elections?

For a long time, there has been this division between old and new Europe and, in fact, the new Europe. It is usually a region that has influence from Western Europe, but it also has influence from the US, Russia and other places. And in that sense, there are obviously some differences in terms of the influences and the profile that the countries in our region have compared to those in Western Europe. Especially we, as Bulgarians and Romanians, can probably also think about why, since we are rightly supposed to belong to the Schengen area, new conditions have been set. So this problem of trust and differences clearly exists in a way and needs to be overcome. And a simple appointment of someone like Iohannis could, in theory, overcome this problem? Probably not.

So far, we have talked about President Klaus Iohannis as a figure who potentially fits the profile of the Western European powers in the European Union, as someone who also represents an Eastern European country. But how do Romanians rate the two terms of their current president?

I had the opportunity to be in Romania, in Bucharest, just when Iohannis was elected for his first term in 2014. His victory was the result of an unprecedented mobilisation. I remember the jubilant crowds in the centre of Bucharest when he won, with the slogans “A different kind of politician” and “Romania of a job well done”. I mean, he used the capital of being ethnic German and Germans having a good name in Romania.

What happened next was described by many people in Romania as a disappointment. There is criticism that during his time corruption increased significantly. There is criticism that he simply did nothing substantial as a political initiative. There is criticism that he is not good at communication. As a result of the sum of many grievances, his approval rating is now quite low. I have seen reports that say the approval rate is 20%. There are reports that it is even lower.

So we should not be surprised that there are also investigations into some aspects of his work as head of state – for example, a possible house that he could renovate at this moment with state money, a palace in which he will retreat after leaving office at the Cotroceni Palace, or his flights, which are, as far as we know, with private companies and for amounts that are not declassified at the moment.

We have already mentioned to our listeners that 2024 will be an important election year for Romania. In addition to the Europarliamentary elections, Romania will vote for local authorities, for parliament and for president. It is complicated. Let me ask you to briefly paint this political picture. What do you think are the main political blocs in the country at the moment, which are perhaps already gradually starting to gain the trust of their voters? And what do these political blocs think of the legacy left by the current President? Because this, in turn, will determine which candidates will be nominated for this election.

We see that several blocs have emerged in Romanian politics. One of these blocs is, in fact, literally Klaus Iohannis’ bloc. It is the combination of the Social Democratic Party, the National Liberal Party, which are currently in power. Obviously, they are counting on being the European option for Romania. They have support, as we see at the European level with this forum that is taking place at the moment. And maybe this will be their game – whoever doesn’t want to vote for the sovereignists, the extremists, should vote for stability, because that’s what Iohannis stands for – stability in the face of the war in Ukraine.

There is the sovereignist bloc, which is heterogeneous. It has a dominant party – the Alliance for the Union of Romanians, but there are other small parties, and they sometimes merge with this big party, sometimes they split. The parties in this bloc have various internal squabbles, but this is the sovereignist option. The sovereignists are a force that is against Iohannis. They use every opportunity to criticise him.

There is a third bloc that is also heterogeneous, but in general these are people who may not be exactly happy with Iohannis’ tendency, but they are not on the side of the Sovereignists either. At the moment, in general, this is the trend, which is the unification of the Union Save Romania, which is a Macronist party, the people of Ludovic Orban, who is a conservative politician, and the people of Traian Băsescu, who are unionists.

In general, nothing has yet been said about how the processes in Romania’s political life will evolve. And yes, health and life, we will invite you again to follow the processes in the neighbouring country. Thank you! This was the comment of my colleague from the Romanian editorial office of Radio Bulgaria, Vladimir Mitev, a few minutes ago. Together with him, we tried to analyse what Bucharest’s expectations were of the European People’s Party congress held in the Romanian capital and whether they were justified. It was a party forum which, as you have also learned from the discussion with Vladimir Mitev, was loaded with many political expectations on the Romanian side.

Photo: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks at the European People’s Party Congress 2024 (Source: YouTube)

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