There is still hope for Europe – just look to Romania

At a time when the centre-left all over the EU is on the ropes the possible election of Liviu Dragnea as Romanian prime minister may cheer up European social democracy

Denis Macshane@DenisMacShane
Wednesday 07 December 2016 10:33
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Dragnea has lain out an ambitious progamme of market-focused economic reform
Dragnea has lain out an ambitious progamme of market-focused economic reform

After elections in Bulgaria and Moldova of a pro-Putin president and prime minister there is relief in European capitals that Romania might buck the south-east Europe trend and install a pro-EU, pro-Nato prime minister after national elections on 11 December. At a time when the centre-left all over the EU is on the ropes the arrival of Liviu Dragnea will cheer up European social democracy when many of its politicians are floundering.

Dragnea, a trim 52-year-old, is a passionate angler is an engineer with a long record as a local and regional politician in post-communist Romanian politics with several stints as a minister. His favourite quarry is carp. Persuading the low lying heavy sluggish carp to take the bait is tricky and Dragnea hopes he win over the rest of Europe by boosting Romania’s European and Nato credentials as all EU member states traverse the difficult Trump-Brexit years ahead.

Talking in Stockholm where he was meeting the Swedish social democratic Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven – the Swedish left is still the principal reference point for the modern EU social democrats – Dragnea laid out an ambitious progamme of market-focused economic reform linked to social investment.

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Romania’s economy is actually one of the best performing in the EU with 5 per cent growth expected this year and the overall economy increasing by 25 per cent in the last five years. Its debt and deficit are comfortably within EU Treaty requirements – significantly lower than post-Brexit Britain – and Dragnea wants to create a Sovereign Investment Fund that that will take under its wing 200 companies that are still partly owned by the state and prepare them for listing on the stock exchange.

He plans to zero rate dividend tax with no tax on profits for the first €100,000 made by SMEs and a cut in VAT to encourage consumptions with zero VAT on house sales.

If all this sounds proto-Thatcherite there is an interesting social programme with a hike in the minimum wage and tax deductions worth £300 for each child provided the child attends at least 90 per cent of school classes.

France has more Romanian doctors than Romania and Dragnea and his team want to focus on a major investment in medicine with a new giant hospital in Bucharest complete with a university medical school, a pharmaceutical research centre and specialist clinics. Eight smaller scale regional centres are planned to upgrade health care for the 20 million Romanian population and keep Romanian medical graduates working at home.

His claim Romania can help secure the EU’s external borders will be well received in Brussels and Berlin. “We have 2,700 km of the EU borders with non-EU member states and we will invest resources to ensure that Romania does not become a transit route for anyone trying to enter the EU illegally.” However, Dragnea insists that Romanian society is tolerant of foreigners and “we have no anti-semitic, no xenophobic, and no extremist politics in our country.”

He is diplomatic on Brexit but is clear that Romania will not take kindly to any discrimination against Romanians in Britain following full Brexit. There are 178,000 Romanians in Britain, compared to 1.2 million in Spain, 708,000 in Italy or 400,000 in Germany.

He says he is concerned about “centrifugal forces in Europe” – without specifying Brexit, or moves to hold other anti-EU or anti-euro referendums though he acknowledges that “all EU officials need to understand that economic and other policies must be directed to benefit European citizens and not just be seen as promoting the EU institutions themselves.”

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As Dragnea put away his fishing rods in the hope of dominating the next years of government he seems calm, methodical and determined that Romania will look West to Italy, France, Spain and Britain. He is not interested in joining Visegrad Europe of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with the first three nations now gripped by illiberal, nationalist, Islamaphobe leaders more prone to criticise the EU than support it.

Dragnea is determined Romania will stay a faithful EU and bit by bit Romania will become a modern economy rejecting intolerance and anti-social neo-liberalism.

Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe and author of Brexit: How Britain Left Europe. He writes on European politics and policy

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