Unable to join the Visegrad Group in 1991, Romania had to create its own path to European integration. Difficult as it was, and still is, this brought a series of lessons to the second-largest country of Central-Eastern Europe. These lessons enable a new generation of Romanians to better define their political interest and turn the country into a more active regional player.
Once upon a time, joining the Visegrad Group (V4) was Romania’s impossible dream. Scarred by a Maoist political regime, with a collapsing economy, Stalinist institutions and a political elite who emerged from the secondary ranks of the Communist Party, Romania in 1990 was only half-way out of communism.
The country was incapable to join the alliance launched by Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, that had initiated reforms since the 1980s. Political instability and hesitation in the 1990s diminished Romania’s ability to restructure faster and be, even separately, an equal of the four Visegrad countries.
Paths visibly diverged, with the V4 integrating sooner into both NATO and the EU.
Following the 2015 refugee crisis, and building on top of gradual discontent with their position in the EU, the V4 governments not only changed the nature of their approach to European integration but also looked for possible allies. That same year, Polish President Andrzej Duda and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán spoke about the Group’s need for a better-coordinated partnership with other regional actors, including Romania.
The Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Péter Szijjártó joined and invoked mutual interdependency as a pragmatic reason for Romania to become a partner of the V4, in close relation to Hungary. Viktor Orbán repeated the offer in 2017 and December 2019, with the same message of “creating prosperity together”.
The nationalism and partial Euroscepticism of the V4 countries pleased the Social Democratic Party/Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (PSD/ALDE) coalition in power in Bucharest back then; born from the 1980s nationalist Communism, the PSD wanted to seize the double opportunity to make Romania join the exclusive-looking Visegrad club and legitimise its anti-EU stance.
Not surprisingly, opposition came from President Klaus Iohannis, the civil society and business milieus.
Romanians are immune to the promises of “illiberal democracy” because they partly lived in one until 2012-2014. The paternalist presidencies of Ion Iliescu (1990-1992-1996, 2000-2004), the authoritative methods of Traian Băsescu (2004-2009-2014), the PSD’s attempt to find inspiration in Erdogan’s Turkey (under Prime Minister Victor Ponta, 2012-1015) or install democrature and tolerate corruption (2016-2019) – all endured and fought against – were the best treatment against illiberalism.
In Romania, the political trends of the V4 collided with the resilience of President Iohannis (elected in 2014) to defend the democratic acquis and to anchor Romania in the West. An overwhelming majority of civil society supports him. Iohannis’ fight against undemocratic actors coincided with a new generation of pro-active civil society leaders and business milieus.
While not yet fully coordinated, they were capable to produce political platforms and build strategically intimate alliances between social entrepreneurs, trendsetters and the private sector, with mutual empowerment, putting pressure on the government.
This new generation does not wish to lose the benefits of EU membership. During the 2019 elections (both European and presidential), they managed to mobilise and change the political course that, under the PSD’s guidance, was putting Romania’s relationship with the European institutions at risk.
No picture-perfect Visegrad
The PSD’s anti-Brussels message fell flat because of multiple reasons. Romanians are Europhiles. European and Atlantic institutions are perceived as being more efficient and more reliable than national ones, ruled by reviled politicians, identified as incompetent and corrupt.
Unlike Hungary and Poland, the white, Christian future of Europe or the need to defend the Eastern frontier from Muslim immigration are of very little concern to Romanians. They have to focus on the country’s internal political instability and economic insecurity because of the last government’s populist erraticism.
Romanians consider that the only frontier that needs defence is the one with Russia, running through the Black Sea – which turns Bucharest into an ally of Warsaw but in opposition with a Russia-friendly Hungary.
Moreover, Hungary’s repeated outbursts against Bucharest in 2019, when nationalist rhetoric peaked on both sides, did not contribute to creating confidence. And so, the voice of Viktor Orbán was not tailored to bring any V4 message across to Romania, neither in 2017 nor in 2019. Orbán only targeted the Transylvanian electorate with Hungarian citizenship for the upcoming elections.
Developing regional alliances
Romanians do not wish to return to the attitudes and economic problems that placed the country at the margins of political Europe in the 1990s. On the contrary, they wish to display a good set of Euro-Atlantic credentials just like the original V4.
Relations to Hungary bear the seal of a tumultuous past; those with the Czech Republic and Slovakia are objectively positive, but it is the Polish model of economic development and geopolitical strategy that interests Romania the most.
Aside from 600 years of interaction as neighbours (frontiers changed relatively recently), Romania and Poland share similar geopolitical interests vis-à-vis Russia and rely on a consolidated relationship with the United States. Perceptive observers in pro-Euro-Atlantic milieus welcome the idea of a reinforced partnership between the Romania and Poland to strengthen the Eastern areas of the EU in a sort of Baltic-Black Sea “dumbbell” connection.
Poland is present in Romania’s economy through trade and investment, including in strategic fields such as gas extraction from the Black Sea. The two countries are both members of the Three Seas Initiative and the only ones to contribute to the creation of a regional investment fund through the Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego of Poland and Export-Import Bank of Romania.
This positive example is understood in Bucharest as a manner of enhancing the European Union cohesion and support regional convergence. As President Iohannis stated repeatedly in his replies to Viktor Orbán’s offer, Romania does not want to be part of any division of Europe in rival subunits.
Pillar at the Black Sea
Being the sixth largest EU nation (after Brexit), Romania seeks to join the European core and become a convincing partner of the EU’s original six. Various proposals of cooperation were coined, among which a partnership with the Weimar Triangle (a “Weimar Plus”) or a trilateral with Poland and Germany (Romania’s largest economic partner as well as a military one within NATO’s framework nation concept). Romania also opted for a strong bilateral alliance with the USA.
This renewed proximity to Washington, DC and the will to bring more in the relationship to Brussels helped the pro-European parties shape a country project, metaphorically expressed as “Romania, pillar of the Atlantic world at the Black Sea”. Long-time absorbed by domestic affairs and looking for a much-needed renewal, Romania did not play an active European role and was punching below its weight.
This new ambition does not exclude cooperation with the V4. On the contrary, in economic terms, it will likely increase. Politically, however, distances remain. At this moment, the V4 is seen as a fairly positive story which Romania initially could not join because of political circumstances – but whose recent transformation made the presidency think of alternatives. Romania needs to preserve or reinforce the Euro-Atlantic benefits it had to fight for with considerable difficulty.