Romania’s Ecological Vacuum and the Absence of Left Progressive Politics in the EU Elections

Romania’s political landscape lacks progressive left voices in the European elections, despite growing environmental concerns. Learn more about the country’s environmental challenges, political manoeuvring and the role of civil society’s uphill battle to challenge the status quo.

Is there any politician who doesn’t love nature? At any rate, Romanian and European politicians of every stripe say they do. And it has never been more en vogue than today to make empty pronouncements with buzzwords like “ecology”, “green transition”, or “sustainable”. Still, when Romanian politicians do talk about “green” subjects, it’s almost always about local issues, as if there is no worldwide climate disaster as we speak.

But, if the political elites lag behind in terms of environmental issues, with civil society it’s a whole other story. International and local NGOs, investigative journalists, and a wide array of activists have been active, often with positive effect.

On the one hand, the gap between what people really want and what political parties actually deliver shows that we are still far from what can be called a functioning democracy. On the other hand, it can also be viewed as a sign of hope that change is possible, if only the electoral and systemic barriers could be overcome.

A Snapshot of Romania’s Political Landscape

Political power in Romania is held by the national coalition of the two biggest parties – Social-Democratic Party (PSD) and the National Liberal Party (PNL) – which have governed together since 2021. While in part mirroring the Grand Coalition in Germany with SPD and CDU, the difference here is that both parties are socially conservative, and both massively espouse pro-business policies. The PSD will from time to time make noises in favour of workers and raise the minimum wage but most often leans right economically. PNL is a typical European People’s Party member, with neoliberal and conservative policies.

The parliamentary opposition consists of two main political currents. The first is the United Right, an alliance formed out of two splinter parties from the PNL, together with Save Romania Union (USR), which is the dominant partner by far. While in the beginning the core of USR membership consisted of green and social activists riding the wave of anti-corruption protests, it transitioned over time to become a more classical neoliberal party. Although not as socially conservative as the others, it now mostly champions the privatisation of public services.

The other relevant opposition party is the Alliance for the Unification of Romanians (AUR), a far-right party that surprised everybody when it got 9% in the general elections of 2020. Now, it hopes to become the second largest party. Last but not least, there is UDMR with a stable 5%, representing the Hungarian minority.

What about left-wing parties?

At the moment, Romania has not a single left party in the national or the European Parliament. Again, PSD, although calling itself social democratic, is a party that bills itself as a staunch supporter of the church and big business. Of course, there are a number of left parties, but they remain minuscule, and few of them, if any, even manage to run in elections. This is because it is fairly easy to establish a political party in Romania – you only need three people to found it – but very difficult to participate in elections.

The only left party with broader support is the Romanian Socialist Party. It is also the only such party that collected enough signatures to participate in the European elections, although it has no real hopes of success, as in 2019 it only garnered 0.43% of votes. And, from the way it looks now, we will not see any other left party or candidate in the coming elections, whether European, national, or presidential.

There are also some green parties, but some of them only in name. The Romanian Ecologist Party (PER), for example, was in favour of exploiting Roșia Montană, a mining project with enormous risks for the environment and human health.  The Green Party (Partidul Verde), a member of the European Greens, had raised hopes at the beginning but no longer. Moreover, one of its co-presidents has had a long career in the PSD before becoming a green, while the other proposed a law that will mean even more years in prison for drug consumers. The only real green candidate in the coming European elections is the independent MEP, Nicu Ștefănuță, s former USR member and now member of the European Greens. He remains the only mainstream Romanian politician to talk seriously about climate change in its global context; nevertheless, getting elected would be a real challenge.

A political system built to keep the outsiders out

It is a common tactic to take over a real movement or possible source of opposition in order to better control it – as is shown by the number of obedient NGOs and small political parties and journalists itself. This also shows how impregnable Romanian politics is to outsiders. In order for a party to participate in national or European elections it needs about 200,000 physical signatures with a lot of personal data from each person. For an independent in the European elections 100,000 signatures are required.

This is a gargantuan task for a new party without large financial and human resources. Mainstream parties usually copy real names from official census tables and fake the signatures each time. All this is plainly illegal, of course. Romania now has the highest threshold of signatures for participating in elections in all the EU – a threshold proven to be a very “successful” obstacle in keeping newcomers out of politics.

Public Attitudes Towards Climate Change in Romania

Debating the extent to which each society is interested in climate or ecological matters often turns into a virtue signalling competition. At first glance, Romanians are as concerned about the environment as any other Europeans. According to a EIB survey, 60% of Romanians would agree to financially compensate countries affected by climate change so that they could manage the effects. 45% see climate change as a major problem, which is 5% above the EU average. Also, according to a Eurobarometer report, 63% of Romanians see it as their responsibility to act in order to limit the effects of climate change.

The average citizen more or less agrees with the need for greener policies. It is the political parties that fall short of delivering. Most pay lip service, while not truly committing to a green transition – most politicians would not be interested or even understand what this would mean. For example, while liberal parties boast about their concern for the environment, they also remain the staunchest supporters of the Neptune Deep project, which would tap into huge offshore gas resources and endanger the aquatic ecosystems.

Nevertheless, on the rare occasions in which political parties do talk about the environment, it’s about local or national issues, with international issues hardly ever touched on. Among the local issues, illegal deforestation remains the most popular.

Romania has an ongoing deforestation problem. The country has some of the largest remaining virgin forests in Europe with an incredibly rich biodiversity, but they have come under increasing pressure from illegal logging in the last decades. Dozens of journalistic investigations have been carried out and many rangers have been killed while trying to stop this process.

While promises to tackle this are made each year, governments have all failed to achieve any real breakthroughs, and investigations have shown that most times illegal logging is done with the consent of regional political power and police. This issue is also of interest because of the way opposition parties and media alike describe the problem.

The liberal view is that the root problem is “corruption” and the solutions are limited to more transparency and enforcing the law. While true as far as it goes, this almost never takes into account the final beneficiaries: international companies. Investigations have shown time and again how secular forests are cut down for the benefit of IKEA or Holzindustrie Schweighofer, generally through Romanian companies that usually do the “dirty work”.

On the other hand, nationalist parties have a long tradition of using the mantra “our resources are stolen by foreign powers”. While this has always been a popular rhetorical device, nationalist parties almost always fall short of presenting viable solutions.

The Roșia Montană Case

The Roșia Montană Project was a proposal to open the largest open-pit gold mine on the continent. Using cyanide leaching techniques, the proposal posed a huge threat to the environment and villages around due to possible spillage into rivers and underground water. Starting in the 1990s, the Roșia Montană Gold Corporation has carried out a full-blown lobby campaign gathering the support of politicians and journalists. Many have accused the company of establishing a systemic and professional bribing system.

During all this, the two biggest political parties carried out an interesting choreography: When the right-wing parties were in power, the so-called leftist PSD in opposition opposed the project on ecological principles. When their positions switched, the PSD prime minister turned from ecologist to industrialist, while the right-wing opposition suddenly raised concerns over the legality of the project. Of course, both parties only pantomimed opposition to the project – for in truth they never really challenged it.

The government, the mainstream media and the entire political elite were de facto supporters of the gold mine. There were few hopes of stopping it. But it was then that one of the largest protests in decades swept the streets of Bucharest and other cities. It was because of those protests that the project was first delayed, then cancelled altogether. Just recently, Romania won against the company at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, thus avoiding over 6 billion dollars in damage compensations. This proved that opposition from outside the system can actually work.

In the end, it’s still up to civil society

Most of the real opposition comes from the civil society, but not without consequences. Independent journalists and activists alike have been harassed in almost every way possible. While SLAPP – strategic lawsuits against public participation – is a common tactic, many have also been threatened with violence.

As a recent example of SLAPP, a few NGOs who attempted to block a shady construction project in Bucharest through legal means by suing the developer were fined by the court instead the developer. Unable to pay, one of them dissolved after almost twenty years of activity, while the others managed to gather the money from public donations.

And, just last year, there was a legislative proposal from the ruling PSD-PNL coalition to require that NGOs deposit 10,000 euros for each case that they bring in court to block a project. It is an impossible sum for most organisations and would serve to protect companies from “abuses carried out by green activists”. If they lose, members of the organisation would personally have to pay a hefty sum to the companies in question or to public institutions. It is a law that, if adopted, would mirror the latest moves by the French government to dissolve left and environmental organisations.

In the end, it is hard to predict the future of Romanian politics. But it is clear that we will not see any left party winning a seat in the European Parliament this round. The wave of protests around Roșia Montană ten years ago raised a lot of hopes, but they slowly dissipated into various failed projects for political renewal. Still, there is hope that younger generations, more progressive and politically aware as they are, will play a stronger role in projects of political renewal. Moreover, the resilience of Romanian civil society over the years has shown that there is potential which can be tapped into, if the timing and organising is astute.

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