Young Romanians Will Determine the Fate of the European Union
By Andrew Teodorescu
Thousands of Romanians took to the streets of the nation’s capital, Bucharest, on Sept. 22 2016 to protest against the Senate’s opaque decision to prematurely terminate an investigation into a former high-profile government officer. Many protesters speculate that the decision was birthed out of corrupt measures in order to hold the political aristocracy above the democratic law—a plausible allegation considering that Romania faces the highest corruption level in the European Union (EU).
Corruption has plagued Romania’s political system since the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989, but anti-government protests in the 1990s and 2000s never had enough momentum to bring significant change to the system. Members of Generations Y and Z, those born into democracy, have played a crucial role in the past four years by leading protests of considerable magnitude that have led to real reform efforts. While the passive culture that allows corruption to exist still pervades Romanian society, it is quickly being replaced with the activist concerns of these new generations. Due to the increasing wariness of western EU members in the political and economic activity of eastern members, the degree to which activism is expressed by young Romanians in coming years will decide the future participation of western states in the EU.
The corrupt culture that is widely accepted in Romania’s upper-level government causes political turmoil both nationally and supranationally. In recent years, high-profile Romanian political officers have been convicted on graft, bribery, embezzlement, conflict of interest, fraud, and tax evasion charges. Such continued abuses of power cost the EU billions of euros annually and drive investors away, ultimately perpetuating a deal in which Romania uses billions more in EU funds than it contributes. Since joining the EU in 2007, Romania has ranked among the lowest of all EU members in contributions to the supranational authority. Even worse, Romania had the lowest absorption rate for EU Structural Funds, or the ability to which a member state uses the funds effectively, in 2012.
Romania is not alone in its efforts to reform a corruption-ridden government and to increase its absorption rate; other eastern European states—particularly Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary—share similar aspirations. As its eastern members continue to use the Structural Funds poorly and sometimes corruptly, the EU’s western members show declining enthusiasm for membership. The majority of EU citizens support the membership of their respective country, but that majority is only a 51-47 majority, and its support is largely dependent on the perceived domestic benefit of participation.
Western members of the EU are willing to support the growth of democracy and capitalism in the eastern members that were formerly communist, and in fact 82 percent of the Structural Funds budget between 2007 and 2013 was allocated to the poorest countries and regions, most of which are in formerly communist countries. However, this willing support is diminishing as reform measures to slow corruption in these eastern European governments fail to produce desired results year after year. As a new wave of conservatism brushes over western Europe, many western Europeans are tired of the political stagnation in eastern European states. Such failures of government have led to economic stagnation, thereby stalling foreign investment, deepening wealth inequalities, and spurring emigration to western states.
In June 2016, Great Britain’s vote to exit the EU confirmed the trend towards isolationism in western Europe. British voters expressed their discontent with the cost-to-benefit ratio of participation in the EU and their equal discomfort with subjection to international laws. If this new wave of conservatism continues to manifest in national legislation, and if the eastern states do not accelerate their democratic and economic expansions at acceptable rates, France, Spain, and Germany may follow suit in leaving the EU in years to come. Without the economic strength brought by western European participation, powerful investors like George Soros predict that the EU would quickly dissolve.
Out of all the eastern European members of the EU, Romania has seen the most success in anti-corruption measures, leading the President of the European Commission to praise the work of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), Romania’s anti-corruption agency. The implementation of both national and supranational transparency offices have proved effective, but not efficient in holding political actors accountable for corruption scandals. By measure of prosecution for corruption-related charges, the Romanian political system is empirically increasing in transparency. Still, the culture within the government is stubborn. Politicians often try to introduce legislation that weakens the scope of political transparency offices, and sometimes do so successfully.
External and internal transparency offices must continue to serve the greater purpose of exposing and advocating for the persecution of political corruption in Romania, but these operations alone are not enough. A domestic lack of political interest has allowed corruption to breed and thrive in the political system, largely because the members of the Baby Boomer Generation and of Generation X are used to the blatant corruption that accompanied the communist regime and their inability to protest it. By leading protests that directly challenge the authority of corrupt government officials, the members of the newer generations are able to hold political officers accountable for impeachment and prosecution wherever necessary.
If protests continue to succeed in Romania, its citizens will find themselves on the brink of ideological reform. In the face of corrupt pressures, candid republicanism can only be achieved when the citizenship believes that protest is an effective form of holding the government accountable for its action. Widespread protest has the capacity to show the EU that Romanian citizens are willing to fight for a transparent political system and to incite protests in Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary.
The 51-47 majority of EU citizens in favor of their respective country’s membership in the EU is tenuous, and even more so now with Great Britain’s recent exit from the Union. Without a growing sense amongst the western states that the eastern states are experiencing declining political corruption and accelerating economic participation, the dismemberment of the EU is inevitable. Young Romanians have both the reason and right to protest the ills of their government, and, for the sake of maintaining the EU, now is a better time than ever to take to the streets.