The steady anti-European switch in Romania is a strange phaenomenon. Romanians were always among the most ardent pro-Europeans, and a majority of them remains in favour of the EU, but the opposite trend is obvious: Europe is losing ground in the hearts of the Romanians. Trying to find out what provoked the erosion of the traditional pro-European trend in Romania, I asked the political scientist Robert Adam, author of the very recent book Two Centuries of Romanian Populism (Două veacuri de populism românesc, Humanitas 2018):
R. A. The Romanians could hardly be viewed as anti-Europeans. Over the past five years, Romanians steadily placed more trust in the EU than the EU28 average. In the spring of 2014, 58% of Romanians trusted the EU, as compared to a very low EU 28 at 31% (Eurobarometer EB81). In the spring of 2016, Romanians were 47% to trust the EU, against the backdrop of an EU 28 average of 33% (EB 85). In the spring of 2018, 52% of Romanians trusted the EU while the EU28 peaked at 42% (EB89). In the autumn of 2018, the last Eurobarometer (EB90) found that 50% of Romanians still trusted the EU, while the EU28 average was of 42%. Over the course of the past five years since the last European Parliament elections, the Romanians’ trust in the EU shrinked by 8%, while the EU28% gained 11%, but the Romanians can still be viewed as Euro-optimists. What is nonetheless surprising is the anticyclic descending trend. In the last Eurobarometer, only 49% of Romanians agreed that EU membership is good for Romania, 10% less than six months before. This was the sharpest decline in the EU 28.
What is then the reason of the decline of the pro-European attitude?
Well, Romanian politicians have discovered Euroscepticism. Every measure with a positive impact for the population is sold as the national government’s achievement. On the contrary, all unpopular measures are presented as ʿimposed by Brusselsʾ. Romania joined the EU in 2007 and a huge majority of the population (exceeding 90%) had supported the process. Being Eurosceptic would have been a political suicide in the first years. A turn of the tide occurred in 2012, with the first anti-European messages in a campaign, which were to be continued in the ensuing campaigns of 2014 and 2016. Since the 1848 Revolution and the awakening of the Romanian national spirit, Romanian patriotism had been associated with the adoption of Western values. Modernization and Westernization were its dominant features. When patriotism came to be dissociated for Westernization, ethno-nationalism prevailed and the darkest hours of Romanian modern history arrived (the 1930s and the communist period).
What is the role of the media in this?
The media are a key factor, with disinformation being the rule and not the exception for many mainstream outlets (TV news stations mostly). There is a massive array of media, often supported by public funds, which are conveying a narrative of Romanian national interest being different from the EU’s interest and advocating for ʿdignityʾ and ʿstanding up to Brusselsʾ. This type of discourse is not specific to Romania, on the contrary it is widely used in the region (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria). Russian propaganda is also busy feeding divisive topics to the Romanian public opinion. While, as in Poland, it is incapable of projecting a better image of Russia, it is not unsuccessful, by way of fake news, in undermining trust in the two anchors of Romanian prosperity: membership of NATO and the EU. The 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections seemed to dissociate Romania from the growing populist trend. No extremist, anti-system parties managed to elect MEPs in Romania. Nonetheless, there were several defections from mainstream parties to Eurosceptic groups in the EP. The death of populism in Romania was just an illusion. Populist parties may have disappeared, but the populist discourse has been taken over by mainstream parties and occupies the centre of political debate.