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March 6, 2021

Foreign policy, always a business card

Two children start arguing in a park. Although until one point they played nicely with a toy car they took turns in moving around, suddenly one of the children’s egos has its way and the child decides to take over the car without allowing the other to touch it anymore. The harmony that existed between them up to that point shatters and the friendly atmosphere instantaneously becomes clouded. Each of them starts insistently and stubbornly pulling on the car in order to claim it as his own, screaming ever louder, howling and even resorting to the most theatrical crying in order to get their way in this manner too, but also in order to get the attention of the parents who watch them from a distance, in order for them to intervene as their defenders and in the end to reconcile them.

Who is not familiar with such scenes?

Certainly many of us have repeatedly witnessed such scenes. Either as parents or as simple passersby who occasionally walk by children’s playgrounds, many of us have seen such images. And it’s nothing unusual when the characters are 3-4-5-year-old rascals who use such interactions to test out, from the youngest of ages, their abilities as leaders and their influence in establishing their territory and having their way.

What to do however when the protagonists are not innocent young children but statesmen whom the people and voters expect to behave in a dignified, decent, elegant manner and with maximum care toward any of their public presence and any of their statements? Especially when the object they argue over is no longer a harmless “toy car” but is the country’s very image and credibility, more precisely her foreign policy and regional policy interests.

Thus, President Klaus Iohannis accused Premier Victor Ponta on Sunday of attending without a mandate Saturday’s talks in Sofia, talks that took place in a trilateral format that included his counterparts in Bulgaria and Serbia and which focused on the emergency situation generated in the Balkans by the inflow of refugees.
Iohannis, whose relations with Ponta have been increasingly tense in recent months, went as far as to accuse the Premier of taking a leisure walk through Sofia over a matter that is interesting as a preoccupation for the weekend, omitting however that apart from any personal dislike for someone on the domestic political scene, albeit for the Premier himself, a Head of State should choose his words more carefully, especially since in this situation such words could be interpreted as an affront by the Premiers of the two neighbouring countries who attended the trilateral meeting in Sofia.

“The Prime Minister did not consult me, he took a leisure walk all the way to Sofia, he met other Prime Ministers, an issue that is interesting as a weekend preoccupation. Mr. Ponta did not have any mandate to commit Romania in any way. The statements he made are completely non-binding for me,” Klaus Iohannis stated.

Asked what he will do next and whether he plans to talk to the Premier, the President answered: “Yes, definitely, after I return from Brussels we will have talks on this issue.”
Premier Ponta’s reply was not late in coming and was given in a vehement manner on Monday, the Premier stating that someone has to make Romania’s stance publicly known given the fact that the “President does nothing” and “is all mum” in Brussels.

“The problem is not what Mr. Iohannis is saying, the problem is that he isn’t doing anything. Mr. Iohannis goes to Brussels and is silent, he comes from Brussels and is silent. My interest is for our policies to be efficient and known,” Premier Victor Ponta stated on Monday. He added that he did not need a mandate to meet the other Prime Ministers.

“It would be sad if it weren’t funny… Mr. Basescu sets a trap for him every time and Mr. Iohannis, being only arrogant and nothing else, always falls for it. Mandate to do what, to meet the other Prime Ministers? What am I, Sibiu Deputy Mayor to ask him for a mandate? I am meeting the other Prime Ministers when I believe it’s the right thing to do, especially since I’m doing it for Romania’s well-being,” Ponta said.

“As for the rest, I believe Mr. Iohannis has no clue what we talked about in Sofia. (…) He went like the deaf girl at a hora dance and he came back just like he went,” Ponta added.
I wrote in this column before about the wars between the Cotroceni Palace and the Victoria Palace and I pointed out that there has been a kind of tradition so far for anyone holding the offices of President and Premier to engage in jabs, contradictions, hits below the belt.
Whether these wars were between President Ion Iliescu and Premier Adrian Nastase, President Emil Constantinescu and Premier Radu Vasile, President Traian Basescu and Premier Calin Popescu-Tariceanu or President Traian Basescu and Premier Victor Ponta, such conflicts and jabs existed before between the lodgers of the two Palaces. With few exceptions, these protagonists seemingly had in their job descriptions the prerogatives to throw jabs and wage war, driven by personal egos that ended up overpowering the national interest which calls for the state’s main representatives to have unitary stances.

Almost a year ago, Mr. Iohannis solemnly promised during the presidential elections campaign that he will be a DIFFERENT president in contrast to his current predecessor Traian Basescu who in the absence of any conflict he invented one: with the press or the opposition, Parliament, civil society or with the Premier.

During the campaign Klaus Iohannis was giving assurances that he will be “a mediating and integrating President but at the same time a firm arbiter.”
After Klaus Iohannis won the presidential elections and took up residence at the Cotroceni Palace, things really seemed to take a different turn, to enter the right path of normal, decent and responsible institutional collaboration with the Victoria Palace and Premier Ponta with whom the communication worked excellently at first over issues that concerned the national interest. The lull however was extremely short lived, because President Iohannis was unable to get used to the idea of working with a PSD Government, which he always wanted replaced with “his Government” as he put it on several occasions. Naturally, through “his Government” he meant a PNL Government. As a result the state of “peace under the olive trees” with Premier Ponta lasted only several months.

Ever since June, when the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) indicted Ponta for something he did 8 years ago as a lawyer, any trace of mutual trust has been scuttled in the Iohannis-Ponta relationship by the President’s repeated calls for his resignation. Against the backdrop of Iohannis’ ever-growing jabs and cavils toward Ponta, an increasing number of analysts are starting to see in the former increasingly fewer qualities as “integrator,” instead comparing him to Traian Basescu for whom “divide et impera” was a constant practice.
That the tensions between the President and Premier are at their apex and that the war of nerves has reached high levels is obvious. That the President is not at all comfortable with a Social Democrat Premier and with Ponta in particular, is just as obvious. Especially since almost a year has passed without him having “his government” with a Liberal Premier, although the high office he holds and the Constitution do not allow him to explicitly manifest his personal political sympathies.
There was no longer any doubt that the President continues to be open to influence and influenced by the Liberals on Saturday when the first to ask whether Ponta had any mandate at the trilateral meeting in Sofia was PNL Vice President Catalin Predoiu, who is also the Liberals’ shadow premier. Coincidentally or not, on Sunday the President publicly launched precisely Predoiu’s idea.

Predoiu however has greater freedom of movement than Iohannis in what concerns statements, especially those having to do with national interest and foreign policy.
Iohannis however, through any action he takes and any word he utters is already no longer able to speak privately, he commits Romania, he expresses her position. A statement such as the one made on Saturday, according to which Ponta did not have a mandate for the meeting in Sofia, made solely with the goal of hitting the Premier, really does not do him honour and is disappointing coming from President Iohannis. A balanced person, who promised to be DIFFERENT in contrast to his predecessor, but who generates disappointments through such completely uninspired statements made solely to hit Ponta, because the expectations of him were different when he won presidential election almost one year ago.

It’s very normal for there to be antipathy between politicians, and they exist anywhere in the world, however everything is all right as long as a tight hand is kept over them and they are not manifested publicly overshadowing the national interest and the country’s s image, prestige or credibility.
It’s inadmissible when these antipathies burst out and even issues of such scope as Romania’s strategic interests and her regional and foreign policy, as well as her image, can no longer keep a tight hand over them.

Ponta did not go to Sofia to go for a leisurely walk, he went there to establish with his counterparts from two neighbouring countries, Serbia and Bulgaria, a joint action correlated with European policies on migration and refugees. From this point of view, the President’s outburst is incomprehensible. Such statements, as if told in a reproachful tone by a stern professor to a rebellious student, can bring disservices and create prejudices to Romania’s interests.

Because in foreign and security policy, more than in any other domain, the President and Premier have to speak the same language, use the same tone and the same voice and send a unitary and coherent message that would take into account the national interest as well as… “vox populi vox dei.”

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