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Dacian Ciolos, the light-headed heavyweight

Dacian Ciolos [L] and Dan Barna seal their pre-election alliance [@CiolosDacian Twitter]

Political life in Romania was dominated this weekend by the fusion of the main two reformist political formations, two conglomerates that have pooled together the potential votes of the educated urban younger generations for the May European elections: USR (Union Save Romania) and the +PLUS party led by Dacian Cioloș.

The fusion of the two is already hailed (albeit on the background of many personal acrimonies) as the political initiative that will indeed save Romania by combining the main reformist forces.

Fusion is the word used, but actually it is Cioloș’s formation, Plus, that has swallowed the other one, the USR, led by younger and less experimented politicians.

A lot separates the two in terms of functioning and administrative philosophy: USR is democratic; it organised a convention that elected the candidates to the European elections. Cioloș also organised one, but disregarded the results and brought one person from the 13th place to the third, before the young woman who had come out third. He was first on the Plus list, and now on the common Plus-USR list for the European elections.

Clumsy and detached, seen by some as a “technocratic” Messiah, Dacian Cioloș is a former high official with no previous party affiliation, who was EU Agriculture Commissioner (2010 – 2014), and then for a short time prime minister. Romanians love providential characters. They can even get resentful at non-messianic leaders. They also know that they will be invariably disappointed, and are suspicious of too much moral cleanliness. So, who is Dacian Cioloș and how did he manage to get so much credit?

He has been very hesitant in the last years, oscillating between the Liberals (PNL, the National Liberal Party), who offered him to be his political engine, and the same USR that his formation swallowed over the weekend.

He let everybody wait, and in the end he created his own party (+Plus) and put himself at the head of the common list for the May European elections. Still, it is unclear why he needed a fusion with USR. He would have been elected to the EU Parliament anyway, on his Plus list, and he knows it would be very difficult to run things at home from Brussels. People do not go to the European Parliament in order to run a party back home. They know they will be slowly side-lined, and some even stop bothering with domestic politics once they land in Brussels. Being an MEP is a demanding task.

As a comparison, the USR chief, Dan Barna, is not running for the EU elections and decided to stay home and take care of his political formation, preparing for the legislative elections next year. But Cioloș leaves for Europe! He won’t fight in the country (although there is talk about a possible bid for the presidential elections, due end of this year).

For a heavyweight, Cioloș sometimes seems surprisingly light, even light-headed. He seems to need an inordinate amount of time to take decisions. He can even show a surprising lack of sensibility. His indecision can be maddening: on Saturday, he first told everybody that he accepted to head the common list because the USR asked him to. He even said he was ready to step back, after all the fuss and the buzz.

Asked insistently whether indeed he was ready to leave, he said: „Anything can be discussed”.

Anyway, everybody agrees that his party should have been called the “Cioloș List”, and not +PLUS. There is no “Plus”, whatever others in the party might unconvincingly say, there exists only the “Cioloș List”. Without Cioloș, “Plus” would disappear. “Plus” has no identity, the “Cioloș List” would have had one. It is hard to imagine how it will function with him in Brussels.

So, who is he, finally, this elusive former EU Commissioner and former – shortly – prime minister? Cioloș hails from a Transylvanian town, Zalău, in which, until very recently, locals cultivated a special variety of onion, close to a village which is probably the only place in the world to have raised a statue to the glory of the onion. Born on 27 July 1969, he graduated from the University of Agricultural Sciences and Veterinary Medicine of Cluj, then studied in France, where he met his future wife.

In 2007 he became Undersecretary of State for European Affairs with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, then minister between 2007-2008 and finally 2009 — 2014: EU Commissioner for Agriculture.

He was always a high official with no party affiliation, a “technocrat” who managed to become an important EU institutional figure without having to publicly bend his spine through the intricate, trap-laden system of clientelism that forms the very nature of the Romanian political life. Or so it appears from the outside. But Cioloș would not have become a EU Commissioner, with a salary many times higher than a Romanian minister’s, without the personal backing of Traian Basescu, at the time Romania’s shrewd, powerful and widely disliked president.

As Commissioner, Cioloș was a very thorough and organized bureaucrat, doing a lot for the tiny republic of Moldova, a former province of Romania and a former Soviet republic, Europe’s poorest country today. Moldovans are Romanians, so Cioloș helped them behind the scenes as Commissioner for agriculture, by helping raise the EU quotas of Moldovan fruit, vegetables and wine, staples that form the very basis of the Moldovan economy.

Always calm, he only gets slightly irritated when asked about his French wife. He studied in France, and his French is better than his English, a rare staple in Romania nowadays. For a long time, the Romanian press has speculated that France had backed him solidly before his nomination as Commissioner largely due to his having married a Frenchwoman. He has even been accused of being France’s second Commissioner.

So, in the end, there is nothing to blame him for, except for slowness and apparent lack of stomach for quick decisions. As prime minister, he was frugal, to the point of being suspected of bringing sandwiches from home, with onions from the countryside and everything bio. Nothing very exciting on the surface, he was always very clean, in spite of what others have tried hard to blame him for. Just the stuff bureaucracy is made of, but Cioloș has a high opinion of efficient bureaucracy.

In his view, as he once told me in an interview, dealing with bureaucracy is another valuable factor in ensuring that policy-makers keep their feet on the ground. He depicts bureaucracy as having the advantage of allowing initiatives to settle, “to give time to decant the sludge”. With its innate conservatism, a good bureaucracy can strike the right balance between ambition and feasibility, he says. Bureaucrats provide “a measure of reality”.

OK, he usually sports a weird Mireille-Mathieu-like haircut, but that could also be turned to his advantage. Being so frugal and methodical, he certainly cuts his hair himself.

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