Marco Badea: Romania comes out of European elections much better than other EU countries

Interview with the journalist and analyst on the results of the European and local elections in Romania in June 2024 and their significance for what will follow in the elections in the autumn

Vladimir Mitev, The Bridge of Friendship, 14 June 2024

Marco Badea is a journalist and contributor to Republica and other Romanian media, including Kiss FM. He spoke to The Bridge of Friendship about the Romanian European and local elections and the preferences of young people in them. 

In his analysis, Badea looked at the qualities and contributions of the re-elected Romanian MEPs, as well as the success of Nicu Ștefănuță to attract the votes of young voters as an independent candidate. Badea also commented on the problems facing the EU and the significance of the US presidential election in November 2024 for what lies ahead before Europe. The Romanian analyst also explained the situation surrounding the presidential elections in Romania 3.5 months before the vote for the head of state. Finally, Marco Badea listed the economic and political challenges facing Romanian society in the 2024 super-election year. He believes that in 2025 there will be economic challenges related to the budget, the holes left by VAT evasion, the problems with the implementation of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan and concludes that in his opinion Romania does not have the resources for a stronger presence at regional level, regardless of who wins the presidential and parliamentary elections.

The PSD-PNL electoral alliance won 19 of the 33 MEP seats allocated to Romania for the 10th European Parliament 2024-2029, followed by the AUR Alliance with six seats, the United Right Alliance with three seats, the S.O.S. Romania with two seats, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania with two seats, and one MEP seat will go to independent Nicu Ștefănuță.

In the European Parliament elections, the PSD-PNL electoral alliance received 48.57% of the vote, the AUR alliance – 14.93%, the United Right Alliance USR-PMP-Forța Dreptei – 8.7%, UDMR – 6.48%, S.O.S. Romania – 5.03%, and 3.08% according to the preliminary results presented by the Central Electoral Bureau after counting 99.95% of the votes. The turnout in Romania was 52.42%, which is above the EU average of around 51%.

Mr Badea, I would like to start the interview with a contradiction. This election was presented as a choice between the European option represented by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the National Liberal Party (PNL), that is to say, by the bloc supporting Iohannis on the one hand and the sovereignists on the other hand. One of the intrigues was what influence the sovereignists would get. But on the other hand, the so-called European choice was represented by old-style parties with clientelist networks, such as the PSD and the PNL. So there is a challenge to them as well – how sincere are they in their pro-European path and whether they are interested primarily in European money, not necessarily in the European social model and reforms. In the context of this contradiction, how do you see the results of these elections? Who or what won? 

First of all, after the European elections in Romania, we are in a much better position than other EU countries. We see how, in France, President Macron dissolved Parliament. The far-right Alternative for Germany has prevailed over Chancellor Scholz’s Social Democratic Party in Germany. We see the far right triumphing in Austria. We are seeing good results for the hard right and far right parties in other parts of Europe – Italy, Spain, etc.

Of course, there is still a majority in the European Parliament, if you look at the current charts, which includes the members of Renew Europe – the centrists, but they have decreased a lot, the social democrats – the Party of European Socialists, and the European People’s Party. But European politics, especially in Brussels and Strasbourg, is very much about compromise and there will be a lot of negotiation in committees, sub-committees and so on. So I expect that, in the next mandate, the EPP will also work with the European Conservatives and Reformists group, led by Giorgia Meloni, which will also include MEPs from the sovereigntist AUR party. They are number 2 in the European elections ranking in Romania, sending 6 MEPs.

Generally speaking, if we look at the list of the PSD and the PNL, we will notice that there are some leading names in it who are benefiting from another mandate in Brussels. But I remind the public that there go Claudiu Manda and Rareș Bogdan, leaders of the PSD and the PNL respectively, two of the three laziest and most absent MEPs in the 2019-2024 legislature. From this perspective, I believe there are people with deficits in this list of MEPs. Another deficiency is Mihai Tudose, an MEP who has not distinguished himself by anything except the harassment of his assistant during his 5 years in Brussels. But there are good MEPs, such as Siegfried Muresan or Victor Negrescu. They are MEPs who know what the job of an MEP in Brussels is like.

The AUR overtakes the USR and the United Right Alliance to become the second political force in terms of perception of the European elections. But the results obtained are far below the expectations of AUR leaders. This shows that the politics of silence has not worked very well for AUR. It has worked in favour of the leaders of the PSD and the PNL. At the same time, the fact that both European and local elections are being held on 9 June has given the party machines of the two ruling parties in Romania the opportunity to mobilise their electorate, especially the rural electorate.

The parity between urban and rural voters shows that urban voters participated more in the European elections. From this point of view, the AUR loses because, with this defeat, by not getting 20%, it reveals that it has no structures on the ground, which will damage it in the parliamentary elections in the winter and in the presidential elections, where the candidate George Simion has the potential to be a runner-up.

It should also be said that the independent candidate, Nicu Ștefănuță, from the Greens, with a pro-youth discourse, entered the European Parliament, mobilising over 200 000 votes. At the same time, the party of Diana Șoșoaca obtained a result above the 5% electoral barrier. So her party, SOS Romania, will send two MEPs, Diana Șoșoaca and Luis Lazarius.  

The PSD and the PNL were able to join forces. It was a plan that Marcel Ciolacu used to destroy his opposition outside the party, but also within it. I make a connection here with the local elections, in which Gabriela Firea and Sebastian Burduja were the two sacrificed candidates of the PSD-PNL alliance, but contested the capital separately. We recall that only a month and a half ago the PSD-PNL alliance in Bucharest had a single candidate, who was dropped after some HotNews investigations.

From this point of view, Ciolacu informally says to Ms Firea in the party – “I’m sorry, look, I gave you a chance, the citizens of Bucharest did not want you, you should go back to your job in Brussels”, because Ms Firea is also currently on the PSD-PNL list for the European Parliament. 

The prospects are realistic, we are in a much better position than other countries, the far right in this country is not gloating. But, practically speaking, if you shake up a little some of the PSD-PNL candidates going to Brussels, you may find that they are even a little more extreme than AUR, or almost as extreme as Diana Șoșoaca. I am referring here to the populist pronouncements of especially Rareș Bogdan, first deputy president of the National Liberal Party. So, the big winners are the PSD and the PNL in the run-up to the European elections, as well as the independent candidate, Nicu Ștefănuță.

And in the local elections, the PNL candidates proved weak as they lost six ward councils while the PSD won many more. Currently, the PSD has 26 ward councils while the PNL has 12. UDMR has four and USR has none.

Another political force that managed to pass the electoral threshold for the European Parliament is the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania. Its candidate, Iuliu Winkler, becomes the oldest Romanian MEP in the 33-strong delegation of MEPs we are sending to Brussels for the 2024-2029 mandate. 

I found another contradiction interesting if we look at the European elections. On the one hand, we saw that Western Europe seemed to vote more for the far right than Eastern Europe. But on the other hand, we see that in the debates and campaigns in Bulgaria and Romania, for example, and I suspect in other countries as well, European issues were almost absent. How can this be explained? So, on the one hand, we vote for ‘Europe’ in form, but on the other hand, in substance, how much Europe is there in us, as a society or as people? 

There is a lot of Europe in us, but we have to judge things pragmatically. Beyond the Brussels bubble and beyond us journalists or people concerned about what is happening in Europe, the reality on the ground is not the reality of the Spinelli Esplanade in front of the European Parliament.

The Brussels bubble is not the reality of Florence, Calabria, Andalusia, Vaslui or Rousse in Bulgaria. The reality on the ground is different. Even Politico Europe wrote last week that European elections are largely a movement of the national agenda in a given member state.

Why? Because people are busy with all kinds of crises. Let us not forget that Europe is going through very complicated times. We have experienced the coronavirus, the pandemic, which is not yet over in terms of impact.

After 70 years of peace on the continent, we have witnessed a great war. We now have a cost-of-living crisis that is quite acute in many countries, including Romania and Bulgaria – countries that are, shall we say, together in terms of the financial problem. We have a problem with the implementation of the Recovery and Development Plan, and we are finding from the European Public Prosecutor’s Office’s announcements that there is massive fraud in certain places in Europe in terms of access to funds, but not cohesion funds, but especially the National Recovery and Development Plan, which, let us not forget, ends in 2026.

Therefore, certain aspects and programmes need to be accelerated. Europe is at a crossroads and people are very concerned about what is happening to themselves and to the community of which they are a part. It is all very well to talk about migration, it is all very well to talk about climate change, but a farmer in Giurgiu is not going to care what happens to the nuclear power stations in Doicesti or what happens to the photovoltaic farms in the Netherlands.

He will be interested in how to sell what he produces. I am not worried about the farmers, there is a big lobby at European level, they know how to present themselves, it is not in my interest to do it. But my interest is to say that, at this point in time, it is legitimate for Europeans to be interested in the problems of ordinary people, while at the same time they should be interested in the big European problems.

But why are these issues missing from the agenda of our societies in Southeast Europe?

The big European issues do not reach the people as intended. Because if these big European issues were reaching the people, there would need to be a much wider debate. Instead, we are seeing an increasingly weak line-up of political leaders at European level. I cannot even compare the current political leaders at European level with the leaders of 25-30 years ago, or even 20 years ago.

There is a big difference, including in the European Parliament, including in the EU institutions. I am not nostalgic for the past, on the contrary, but I do notice the desire of some people to go to Brussels, but only to indulge in the idea of being European civil servants. They do not want to develop the European project.

In France, we have President Macron, who now comes with the desire for strategic autonomy of the European Union, which is a risky bet. From my personal point of view, as an analyst, it is a good bet because it is a preventive bet. But it is a bet that does not have stability because it does not have the resources for political support and even economic-financial and military resources. The conglomerate between France and Germany at the level of the European defense industry does not work yet, because France does its own military production, Germany does its own military production, and eventually, when they have some free time left, they also work on joint production.

So we are not that united yet. Europe continues to operate at two speeds, whether we like it or not. Bulgaria and Romania often, even if they have the opportunity to speak at the European discussion table, do not know what to say, have nothing to say. They have no ideas and, in general, as we have seen with your leaders in Bulgaria in recent years, and with our leaders, they are only aware of the big political blocs and the big currents, and they do not present Bulgarian or Romanian solutions to European problems. The European context must also be seen in a global context.

What does the EU look like in a global context?

At the moment, Europe is still being thought about, and in the corridors of European chancelleries, as I have discussed with other sources of mine over the last few weeks, the question is still being asked whether Europe is a subject of international law or an object of international law. Why? Because either you are an engaged player and you are fighting a much more changed confrontation with China and the United States than existed in the last century, or you are simply a terrain on which China and the United States are fighting their battles. Europe must answer this question for itself, and the newly elected European Parliament will be important in shaping the answer to this pressing question – whether Europe is a subject or an object of international law.

In the East there is much less voting for the far right now because the East has lived through the communist trauma and knows what extremism means. The West has not experienced extremism for 70 years after the fascist-Nazi regimes. But I think that the polarisation that is felt in our society is the most important one at the moment, because there are places in Romania where, according to per capita purchasing power parity, people from one place live better than in other places where they live worse, even in the same country, even in the same region and even in the same settlement from one county to another. 

For example, we are in sector 1 of Bucharest, where life is currently 10 times better in sector 1 than in sector 5 of the same city. Not to mention the fact that Bucharest has a GDP per capita of 177% of the EU average, compared with counties such as Vaslui or Iași, where GDP per capita falls below 50%.

So the differences are huge. In the West these things are much more moderate than in the East. But they also exist in the West, and that creates frustration. On the other hand, the misinformation is so strong that many Europeans in the West are now inclined to join the far-right mainstream. It is a current, let us call it sexy, a current that is alluring, that grabs you, that is vital, but that says nothing. It’s a counterfeit that gets under your skin very quickly because it’s presented in a colourful way. Or it is particularly noticeable in terms of the attention of the European social media user that he pays much more attention to what is fun than to what is important. 

But I do not think we should panic, we are in a complex situation, at a crossroads, as they say. I think Europe has the strength at the moment to respond to what it can do in the coming years. But I would like to point out that the real election will be the American elections on 5 November 2024. At some point in history, the Americans convinced the Europeans that democracy was the right choice. However, if democracy in America ends with Donald Trump in the White House and there is increased disengagement from the alliances in which the US is involved with its European partners, then Europe will find itself in an extremely complicated situation. At this stage, I do not know how it will manage to get out of it. It might get out, but I personally do not see a way out at the moment.

That is why I believe that more important than the outcome of the European or Romanian elections is now the outcome of the US presidential elections in November 2024. International politics is being confirmed because that is the way to look at it, to look at the big picture.  

It is said that a million or maybe even a million and a hundred thousand people in Romania who are Romanians will vote or will be allowed to vote for the first time. How do young Romanians vote and what are their preferences

As I said, a lot of young people came out to vote for the independent candidate, Nicu Ștefănuță, but if we look at the 18 to 24 age group, that is the category with the lowest percentage of voters.

Young people are still disengaged in terms of citizenship due to lack of information and frustration at not being given a clear choice as they are at an age where they carry the baggage of the disappointments taken on by their parents. They do not have their own disappointments, caused by the events they encounter in life, but leave with the baggage of parents who are disappointed, bitter about everything that has happened in politics in recent years. They are having these discussions at home and no longer feel like exercising their civic spirit. As the writer and philosopher Gabriel Liiceanu says, young people disengage from the work of citizenship early in life, when they should be most engaged. 

But it seems that it is not only that, because there are many NGOs or university organisations that promote Europeanism, for example, and it seems to me that I see more interest among young Romanians in European issues than among their peers in Bulgaria.

This is a bubble and I stand by those words. Young people in general, if you look clearly, turned out to vote much less than the percentage of people over 35. This shows once again that they are politically disengaged. But they are still the category that you can migrate to politically the most and on the basis of which you can build platforms and electoral strands so that you can build a dialogue with them. So they can become a major force for the affirmation of a political project, whether it’s an independent in a presidential race or a new political party or a new coalition or an electoral program that then becomes a good political program for a party or coalition, and so on.

Young people can change the game, they can be the force that raises the winners on the Romanian political scene, but something concrete has to be done to make this happen. At the moment, there is no group willing to come up with concrete messages for young people. Even Candidate Stefanuta has promised some things that he cannot do as a Member of the European Parliament. He can fight for them, but he cannot propose them, because the European Parliament does not propose these things. It is one thing to table amendments in committees, but it is another thing to propose laws… 

But young people are now a category of voters that should be considered by anyone who wants to do real politics in this country, not just for sinecures, for political combinations and cartelisation. There are also a lot of young people who want to be in office and, obviously, to be in power with opportunities that help them to live much better and work much less. 

There is a category, I am not saying it is small, I am not saying it is big, but there is a category of young people who fit the image of the young opportunist in Romania. But there are also many young people who are much more concerned about Europe than previous generations. Perhaps they do not show this when they vote, because there are reasons that I mentioned earlier, but they are committed to what the European Union means, to the issues, they are particularly concerned about gender equality, about climate change.

The problem of some young people is that life hasn’t hit them yet and their position is described by Clemenceau, the former French prime minister – “If I’m not left by the age of 30, I have no soul, if I stay left after the age of 30, I’m a bit stupid”. That is what Clemenceau said. Some young people are leftists simply because they like it, they support some ideas of egalitarianism of this almost communist type, but they do it because they are not yet irradiated by life. They don’t have a company, they’ve never paid a salary in their life. Maybe some of them haven’t even worked anywhere in their lives. They live off their parents’ money or haven’t paid rent. They still can’t deal with this harsh reality that makes you understand much more clearly how you should behave in society and what your role is as a citizen in society. 

Presidential and parliamentary elections are due in the autumn. You have said that the PSD of Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu is coming out of the elections on 9 June 2024 with a very good result. The PSD is holding a lot of mayoral seats, district councils, etc. It will probably have a good infrastructure that it will be able to mobilise for the vote… What relevance do the results of these elections have for the autumn elections – the presidential elections in September 2024 and the parliamentary elections in December 2024? What do you expect to happen? 

At the moment we know that there is going to be an extraordinary PNL congress where General Nicolae Ciucă is apparently going to be nominated as the PNL candidate for the presidential elections and the country is already plastered with his posters. Of course, he will also be launching his famous book “A Soldier in the Service of the Country”. Hopefully, that book will have a chapter on the Battle of Nasiriyah in Iraq, but that does not exist in the annals of the US State Department. But perhaps the current President of the Senate and Liberal leader will enlighten us (there is a legend that General Nicolae Ciucă, who was Prime Minister of Romania but came from the ranks of the army, led the Romanian army’s first post-World War II battle of Nasiriyah in Iraq in 2003, but there are many who dispute this claim, pointing that evidence that such a battle with a Romanian general and combat troops took place is absent from US archives). 

In the PSD, it is complicated to see if Marcel Ciolacu will have the courage to join the presidential race. He looks like a leader who has calculated all his steps very well and has so far won almost everything he has wanted. Mircea Geoană is likely to announce her presidential candidacy because she has made a big tour of the country and presented a book several times.

It will be difficult for Mircea Geoană to reach the final of the presidential election if he does not have the party machinery behind him. PSD will certainly not support Mircea Geoană. This I can confirm from the political sources I have spoken to, the PSD.

In the meantime, it will be interesting for AUR to see which candidate they nominate for the presidency. The results in this election are not helping them and they will have to come up with a candidate. Jorge Simion may not enter the race because it is apparent that he is not that wanted by the public.

Who knows, a surprise candidate may emerge. The presidential election is three months away. Let us not forget that in the last elections, in 2004 and 2014, Traian Băsescu and Klaus Iohannis became candidates and then winners just two and a half, three months at most, before the elections.

Over the next period, over the next few weeks, maybe we’ll find out who comes out of the pocket as a presidential candidate. I don’t think this is the year of independent candidates in the presidential race. I also don’t think that Nicușor Dan will run for president because I’ve heard that theory. Gabriela Firea doesn’t stand a chance either after her debacle in the capital. At this stage, the dice have not been rolled yet. Nicolae Ciucă has a good chance though if he enters the second round with an AUR candidate.

But we will see to what extent it will matter whether the PSD and the PNL will have a common candidate or not and whether the coalition will prepare some kind of alliance and not just an electoral partnership, as it was now for the parliamentary elections, and whether it will prepare an alliance, as it was in the past with the Social Liberal Union, for the parliamentary elections in the winter, in December. If that happens, they may also bring in PSD mayors to give support to the PNL candidate or PNL mayors to support the PSD candidate. We’ll see what it will be, I can’t say a specific name, but I can only personally note that the political supply right now for presidential candidates is also limited and not of much quality.

At the same time, I do not see any chance for President Klaus Iohannis to take an important position in the European family. He has already lost the NATO contest. 

If you look socially, what direction is Romania going as a society? Can we expect a more ambitious Romania abroad after all these elections? 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs lacks resources. For this reason we do not have concrete projects, human resources, or ideas. I do not see how we can rely on just being there. We have to propose things. Romania is going in a very negative economic direction. The budget deficit will increase, next year will be the year in which we pay the bill for this populist election year. The private sector will be the hardest hit. Taxes will rise. There is a debate in Romania about a flat rate versus a progressive income tax rate. This debate is going on, let us see what the situation will be. I expect that it will be the entrepreneurial environment that will keep the Romanian economy alive, but will keep it completely subordinate to the state apparatus.

We remain the country with the highest VAT evasion in the European Union. This is something that the state should be working on, but unfortunately, in certain situations, there is complicity of a political cartel between the state and certain cells where these tax frauds are produced. 

Romania is moving towards a social democratic government, let us call it that from a theoretical, general point of view, because it is moving towards a PSD government, which is not anti-European. It is a PSD government in which the PNL will play second fiddle. It will be interesting to see what the party of media mogul Dan Voiculescu will do in the parliamentary elections.

If he gets over 5%, he will be able to be an important pawn in building the next government and maybe at some point the PSD can alienate him and consider throwing the PNL out of government sometime around 2026. This is just a scenario, just a guess. We are working with assumptions, nothing concrete, but it is a scenario to consider. Let us see what the situation will be.

Unfortunately, the bleak outlook is that Romania will enter a spiral of disconnection from important reform projects. The National Recovery and Resilience Plan will be marginalised and we will not be able to do what we set out to do when we joined it. But let us look at the other side. There will continue to be cells in Romania, places where people will work on the ground for citizens and where people will feel a profound change in their lives for the better.

Photo: Marco Badea (source: Marco Badea)

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