Corruption has been the main challenge for Romania even during accession negotiations leading to membership in 2007. Although Romania’s anti-corruption campaign can be credited with undeniable success – leading to the prosecution and sentencing of prominent politicians – corruption continues to be a major challenge.

According to international corruption monitors, public opinion continues to view corruption the political class as “untouchable”. However, mass protests across the country suggest that there is a healthy reaction, in the sense that Romanians will no longer tolerate what they perceive as underwhelming rule of law standards and impunity.

Dan Barna is the leader of Save Romania Union, that is, Romania’s third largest party in the parliament formed after the 2016 general elections. The party campaigned on an electoral platform focusing on the struggle corruption and the impunity of corrupt politicians who try to obstruct lawmakers who try to lift their immunity.

In an exclusive interview with European Interest, Barna describes how his party is trying to turn the tide on corruption. He is confident there are still “enough resources and capacities in Romania to keep the fight against high-level corruption, especially in the ranks of the ruling parties”.

However, Barna warns, political instability can lead the country to an anti-democratic trajectory in both the government and the parliament, which will hurt Romania’s economy and discourage investors.

The Save Romania Union leader strongly supports continued EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans, which he believes will empower democratic structures in the area. He also worries that Moldova’s political leadership combined with Russian presence in Transnistria may set the country off its democratic track.

European Interest: July was marked by two major events in the anti-corruption campaign in Romania: first, the lower house of the parliament approved changes to the criminal code that partially decriminalises abuse of office; secondly, President Klaus Iohannis succumbed to pressured and sacked the head of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), Laura Codruta Kovesi. In your opinion, is the anti-corruption struggle in retreat?

Dan Barna: The assault of justice that we have seen in the last months is nothing more than a reflection of the priorities of the ruling majority in Romania who chose to prioritize the personal agenda of their corrupt leaders in their escape against prosecution and accountability.

By no means should we consider this moment as a retreat of the fight against corruption in Romania, nor should we allow it to influence us in backing down on the fight against corruption. Of course, such events represent obstacles for anti-corruption but on the long run I trust that the judiciary system in Romania has the strength enough to resist inflexion points such as these. Our party has always stood for an independent justice and for a continuous support to the anti-corruption institutions in Romania and will continue to do so.

Romania has the highest level of corruption in the EU. However, your country is not the only one facing this formidable challenge, as there are ongoing Olaf investigations in Malta, Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic and Latvia to name but a few. Do you think there is scope to prevent rather than merely investigate corruption?

Unfortunately we can see that Romania is stepping down on the path of fighting against corruption, despite the major achievements that we have accomplished during since our EU accession. It is regrettable that the current government and majority in the Romanian parliament chose to bring down, step by step, all that had been done in Romania on the fight against corruption. However, I strongly believe that we still have enough resources and capacities in Romania to keep the fight against corruption on the highest level despite the hostility of the ruling parties.

I believe that in Romania, as much as in other countries that you have mentioned the fight against corruption must cover both dimensions, both preventing and investigating corruption.

By not investigating the corruption examples in the past and by not holding corrupt people accountant for their deeds in the past we would only transmit a message for the future that it is ok to be corrupt because in time you might escape with it. It is one of the main reasons for why the amnesty laws that the Government has threatened to push during the past few weeks would only encourage corruption to continue.

Last but not least, by successfully investigating corruption examples in the past and by holding corrupts responsible for their crimes, we will send the strongest message for the future as well. Preventing corruption can`t be possible without fighting and eliminating current corruption.

It is, nonetheless, what we are currently trying to do with supporting the citizens` initiative entitled “Without criminals in public service”, whose objective is modifying the Constitution in Romania so that people who were convicted to prison to be forbidden from occupying or running for election into a public position in Romania, until rehabilitation occurs. I believe this should be a normal fact in a normal democracy and could be one of the steps that might put our country back on the way to democracy.

The Save Romania Union has campaigned with a focus on the demand to reform the judiciary. What are your priorities in this respect? Do people trust the rule of law in Romania? How would you account for the fact that there are fewer people participating in public demonstrations against corruption?

One of the main priorities of our party is the survival and strengthening of the rule of law and fight against corruption in Romania and this priority is dictated by the fact that it represents a priority for Romania and for the Romanian citizens. All the civic emulation that we have noticed since the beginning of 2017 represents the best and most accurate proof of the fact that Romanians want to live in a democratic society with an independent and functional justice system.

Of course there are many things to improve to the justice in Romania, but the trend was entirely positive before the current political majority decided to assume the objective of completely controlling the justice system so that they can save their own convicted representatives and continue to break the law without facing accountability for it.

The public demonstrations that still continue as we speak are a proof of the fact that citizens react to those abuses and desire a different path for Romania apart from that of the ruling majority. However, we cannot expect people to stand continuously in the streets for one and a half year, which doesn`t mean they don`t continue the fight in their own environment. Citizens react to abuses and will continue to do so until the current government and parliamentary majority understand that they need to stop slaughtering justice and democracy.

On a more positive note, Romania is the fastest growing economy in the EU, a global leader in ICT experts and with state of the art infrastructure in this sector. Foreign direct investment is growing and unemployment is dropping.  Still, poverty is still the second highest in the EU. Why is it that economic growth does not translate into improved social cohesion?

The Economic growth in Romania is determined by the effects of investments and of the policies in the past. Unfortunately, the effects of the measures of the current government and parliamentary majority are likely to severely affect the economic situation in Romania.

The political instability in Romania and the anti-democratic direction observable in the measures of the Government and Parliament discourage the investors, creates major fluctuations in the market and in the exchange rate and directly affect the wealth of citizens, thus increasing instead of reducing the social disparities.

Besides, economic growth cannot positively change social cohesion and address poverty and other structural disparities unless policies addressing them are taken and implemented by the state. Unless we will have, in the near future, a political majority who stands for the citizens, all these positive outcomes that you have underlined in your question will very soon be reversed.

Romania is criticised for discrimination against minority groups, not least the Roma population. Has your party any concrete proposal for the successful integration of travellers in society?

Save Romania Union undoubtedly represents the most pro-European and democratic party in Romania and our vision and policies reside deeply in the European values. Social integration has always represented one of the pillars of the European edifice and of the democratic model it stands for and from this point of view, we will always support policies that will respond to the necessities and desires of minorities in Romania, without affecting the other social groups.

This will nonetheless be very well reflected in the future Governance Program that we are currently working on and that is for sure going to be the most democratic and responsible one in the entire political specter in Romania.

Save Romania Union is a relative newcomer in Romanian politics and may be considered as a grassroots political movement. Do you see similarities between your movement and Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche? In what ways do you aspire to challenge the political establishment?

We have always affirmed that Save Romania Union and La Republique En Marche share a similar DNA, stand for the same values and protect the same objectives for the citizens. From this point of view, both USR and En Marche represent the alternative for Romania and France, an alternative that promotes and defends democracy and the European way in our countries.

The political establishment is often represented by and lead by persons who stand only for themselves and their personal agenda, and not that of the citizens. This is our main challenge for the political establishment – bringing honesty and responsibility in the political class, addressing the real problems and expectations of the society and attracting more citizens to understand that the only long-term solution is being responsible and involved in the social and political life of the country.

Following the December 2017 elections, your party is the third biggest in the Romanian parliament. Which is its constituency? Who do you represent?

Save Romania Union has always been the main alternative for the Romanian citizens who don`t have faith in the major parties in Romania due to abuses, corruption and policies contrary to the benefits of the citizens that they conducted and promoted. Our party is currently the third biggest in the Romanian parliament because the citizens saw that our members are correct, fair, with no justice problems in the past, performing and ready to take responsibility for Romania and put their faith in us. This is actually what we represent – the performing, fair and responsible citizens in Romania who care about the future of their country and who decide to stand against the abuses of the current political majority in Romania.

The EU has opened the discussion for a future enlargement in the West Balkans. Do you believe that the enlargement process continues to be a successfully transformative process, delivering substantially improved rule of law standards – including anti-corruption standards – or is the process driven by different political and security considerations?

I have always said that by getting closer to the EU, a state and society gets influenced by the democratic values and principles it stands for, whether we speak of a member state, a candidate or a partner of the EU.

The declaration of president Jean Claude Junker regarding the openness of the EU towards integration of countries in The Western Balkans means a lot not only for the struggle of pro-democracy forces in countries in the region, but also for the ones involved in the European Neighborhood Policy. Particularly considering the current regional and international context, I believe that such declaration and the openness it triggers is like a huge savior for the democratic conduct in such states, while also influencing in a positive manner the democracy inside European Member States for whom the European development in partner or candidate countries might act as a reminder for what are the principles and values that brought them into the EU in the first place. Among these values, anti-corruption and the rule of law stand as priorities and preconditions that must be achieved on the path towards European integration, including after the official EU accession. This is why Romania and other Member States facing attacks on the justice system from their own officials and politicians must continue their struggle for a correct, transparent and efficient justice system, as one the key points on the path towards democracy.

Of course, also considering the current context, the security implications of such closeness are considerably large. For the EU, having a safe, stable and democratic neighborhood means more security for the Members States, particularly those found at the border of the EU, while for the candidate or partner states, any closeness to the EU or clear directions towards a future EU integration mean more stability and security for their own citizens.

Romania is one of the five EU member states that along with Spain, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Do you see any viable comparison between the case of Transnistria and Kosovo?

The situation in Transnistria is the most complicated one in the entire region. While not marking an open conflict like it happened in Kosovo, but a frozen conflict, Transnistria represents first of all one of the hot points in which Russian influence is that big that it can affect the country or countries directly involved in it. For the Republic of Moldova, Transnistria is like a sword that our friends and brothers will always have above their heads until reaching a solution that will respect the sovereignty and integrity of the Republic of Moldova and that will be in accordance with International Law and treaties.

It is regrettable and very alarming that right as we speak, the Russian army lingers in Transnistria, violating the integrity of the Republic of Moldova and seeking to exert a direct influence upon the direction and decisions from Chişinău. It stands as a solid example of how the Russian Federation acts in the region and of their intentions in forcing other countries to enter their sphere of influence, all with the help of corrupt officials who have reached to official positions at the head of the Moldovan state.

Since Moldova is an Eastern Partnership state closely followed by Romanian public opinion, does it concern you that the pro-EU political establishment faces the same if not greater allegations of corruption as pro-Russian oligarchic interests?

The current situation in the Republic of Moldova is critical not just for the current establishment, but also severely impacting the future path of the country. Save Romania Union and I, in particular, have followed very closely and send countless messages for both the Moldovan and Romanian authorities trying to draw attention upon the wrong turn that the Republic of Moldova has taken because of oligarchic and pro-Russian intents. Unfortunately, I fear the Government in Romania and the one in Chişinău follow a similar path, towards illiberal states in Eastern Europe.

The main difference is that Romania is a EU and NATO member, which gives us an extra defense from our partners and allies, while Moldova is more vulnerable to the aggressive stake of the Russian Federation in the region.

However, I put my faith in the hands of the citizens, both in Romania and in Moldova. Our citizens feel and think in a European way and despite the position of certain officials, as long as citizens` desire for a European and democratic way remains as high as it is now, the personal agenda of some corrupt officials cannot remain the direction of the state and the society. I trust that the fight for democracy of our citizens will continue and will determine the same European and democratic way in Romania as much as it will reveal the true path that the Republic of Moldova will follow in the nearest future, that towards European integration.