The not-so-foreign policy – Romania and the EU

Most analysts describe the Romanian use of EU funds as a disaster. Romania has the worst absorption rate of all EU members. We lose billions of euros every year.

The weak Romanian economy badly needs the tens of billions of euros available from the European Union in the next years. A significant improvement in the absorption rates depends on a pragmatic but strategic approach and functional state mechanisms. It also requires solid political planning related to Romania’s foreign policy at the EU level.

Romania has many positive experiences related to transition and reform of state institutions; for example, arguably we have the best expertise among all the ex-communist countries in reforming the soviet-style child protection mechanisms. Most of the best available experts on Roma social inclusion are Romanians and we have a great track record (and therefore expertise) of participation in governance of an ethnic minority (Hungarian). These experiences should put Romania in a leading position at the European level when it comes to these and other related issues. Hundred of millions of euros of EU money are available for these types of expertise each year.

Since joining the EU in 2007 Romania diplomacy has been spectacularly absent at the EU level. Our few initiatives have been in general big failures or flops. For example, our success in nominating a French-educated Romanian Commissioner for Agriculture – Dacian Ciolos- did not translate into anything particularly beneficial for Romania… although it has been a great success for France, our main ally in getting that position. The British anger (France was accused of having two commissioners) proved well justified as Mr Ciolos has protected French interests exceptionally well. Romania received significant glory for holding such an important portfolio and little else.

The overall situation regarding the role we play in Europe seems to be getting worse. Why is this happening?

The Romanian ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) has never had a human resources plan to prepare Romanians for influential jobs within the European Commission or other intergovernmental institutions. The inability of Romanian diplomacy to use pragmatically the strengths and expertise which exist within the system, and within Romanian civil society, is almost proverbial. Romania has much less influence in the European Commission than most (if not all) member states. Even countries with populations 10 times smaller than Romania are doing better at promoting their national priorities within the plans of the European Commission.

Romania has no clear strategic target for the portfolio of its next commissioner, starting in 2014, and no idea yet about who will be nominated. This is typical of how Romania prepares its candidates for the very influential jobs within the different structures of the European Union. The current discussion among political elites that the next Romanian commissioner should be the one in charge of the Commission budget is at best hopeful, if not inept. The Enlargement portfolio or the Employment and Social Affairs portfolio are strategically and pragmatically where we should focus, considering our expertise and legitimacy.

Preparing for the commissioner position, or any significant position at the international level, requires time. It should not be a rushed, unprepared decision, as is currently the practice. Functional state institutions staffed by professionals, good political planning, and good coordination among those institutions responsible for determining foreign policy (in Romania’s case, the Presidency and MFA) are needed if we want to play a significant role within the EU.

What is the situation in reality?

In Romania, it is only in exceptional cases that conformity, lip-service, bribery, compromise, nepotism or greed do not play an important role in the appointments of ambassadors, councilors, secretaries of state, senior diplomats and appointed Romanian bureaucrats within important intergovernmental institutions.

These practices make a strategy for representation and influence within the existing international mechanisms almost impossible. The tensions and ambiguities regarding the role and relationship of the MFA and the Presidency are other serious obstacles.

The last Romanian minister of foreign affairs to fulfill a complete mandate was Mircea Geoana. Since 2004 the mandates of ministers were short (under two years), and those in charge either did not try, or failed miserably to reform the existing system. As usual, the president as well as the prime minister and foreign ministers surrounded themself with sycophants and yes-men and spent most of their time concerned about their visibility in a Romanian mass media dependent on scandals.

The best Romanian diplomats prefer to be posted in Romanian missions abroad. Their salaries are much better and the stress significantly less, as they avoid dealing daily with what one of the oldest and most respected Romanian diplomats has called the “cohorts of high level idiots”. These “cohorts” are appointed politically at the senior management levels within the MFA whenever the ministers fall out of grace. The few smart appointees in senior management within the MFA think about the short term, and look for fast ways to become rich and famous, knowing that their appointments will likely last no more than two years. They are preoccupied with their political careers and visibility rather than the potential success of Romanian diplomacy. In the meantime, the experience and expertise within the Romanian MFA is just getting worse.

The few passionate, well intended professionals working for the Romanian presidency and the MFA play minor roles as their professionalism is their most serious handicap when it comes to promotion. Not the most brilliant, but the conformists will end up in influential positions where their advice can be either adapted to what the politicians need, or ignored/overruled by those in power.

The jobs and careers of the overwhelming majority of Romanian political leaders depend on their relationship with the most powerful (and usually corrupt) groups within the party or with party leaders. Most often, the incentives for promotion within ministries and political parties alike have nothing to do with professionalism, but rather with personal favors, family connections, lip-service, money and sex. The well-paid positions within intergovernmental institutions are reserved for those that best served the personal interests of the most influential politicians and not for those who are best at their jobs.

The result: Romania is very poorly represented within intergovernmental institutions and plays almost no role in setting the agendas of these institutions. There are a few cases of highly skilled Romanians in good positions within intergovernmental institutions, but these tend to feel little allegiance to Romanian interests as they managed to get into those positions by themselves,  sometimes against political interests.

The European Parliament and nepotism

There is no Romanian political party with a public strategy for the role Romania should play at the European Union level, and a correlation between such a strategy and their list of candidates for the European Parliament.

Instead, party leadership – which needs to repay “favors” received or to be received – composes those lists. In the best case, visibility rather than professionalism is what matters.

Due to his poorly considered decision to push his daughter within the European Parliament, the Romanian President has no legitimacy to ask for a significant reform of a system based on nepotism. The wives of the two most important Romanian politicians at this moment are also in the European Parliament: neither of them can say much about nepotism either.

I can continue: the wives of two of the best known and strongest local leaders of the biggest Romanian political party are in the Romanian parliament, and the brother of a third one is there too. These are not exceptions but rather a common practice. In fact, it is a relatively easy task for anybody with a good relationship with the most influential (and often most corrupt) mayors or politicians to get a position in the Romanian parliament. High-level jobs in some of the most important businesses connected with the state, intergovernmental organisations working in Romania, and international civil society organisations are also controlled by powerful politicians and this is considered “normal” within the Romanian elites. A good example is the appointment of a liberal leader, who was a close friend with the prime minister at that moment, in a top position within the Romanian National Bank despite no financial expertise whatsoever. Not always nepotism and corruption are the reasons why close relatives of powerful people end up in undeserved positions of power themselves – the power of example, conformity and cowardice to speak against those appointments plays an important role.

Similar practices can be seen at all levels of Romanian society. The situation is same and sometimes worse within universities, hospitals, schools, trade-unions, NGOs, local administrations, the police and justice system, ministries, big businesses …


Neither Romanian diplomacy nor the Romanian political elite seem to have well-defined ideas or strategies to promote Romania at the international level. Our politicians seem unable to replace the communist tradition of personality cult with functional mechanisms to promote and protect the interests of the state from corruption and nepotism. In fact, we do not have a functional state with functional institutions; we have instead a group of individuals that act either as Gods (who cannot be held responsible for their acts) or as Mafioso families and institutions that serve themselves and not the citizens.

The wives, daughters, brothers, sons and lovers of major Romanian political leaders are hugely overrepresented in positions of power at all levels of Romanian society.

Public discussions around conformity and nepotism are strongly discouraged in Romania due to the fact that both characteristics are predominant within all sectors of Romanian society. Even the intellectual elites prefer to produce incredibly convoluted explanations to justify the existing status-quo rather than fight it.

Romanian foreign policy is basically about traditional policies rooted in conformity, lip-service, nepotism, blackmail and scandal, and a profound disinterest in anything that is against the personal interest of the influential politicians. No foreign policy at all would be better.

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