By Remus Ioan Ștefureac
The worst crisis of our generation will also activate a series of opportunities.
After the crisis, we can find ways to reconcile the federalist views that demand a stronger role of the EU and the partisans of the national states that risk being “seduced” one by one by the expansionist actors who do not share the essential values of our civilization and identity.
Every safety mask, every emergency lung ventilator, every essential consumer goods that reach the people through the help of the European Union will mean as many blank cheques granted by the citizens of the Member States to the reinforced European project.
The European citizen will send the extremist forces to irrelevance and will support the strengthened European project if the EU, in agreement with the Member States, will have the vision, the political will, and the administrative capacity to implement a genuine European “Marshall Plan” financed by European money, for the prosperity of the whole Europe, without privileged areas (relocation of production facilities within the Union, a single-speed Europe, infrastructure development, the stimulation of education and innovation, all in a strategy that goes beyond the center-periphery reflex – a source of so much frustration and conflict).
Romania needs a profound reform of the political system (the renewal of the political class, the reform of the administration, the amendment of the Constitution), major actions of economic transformation to increase the local participation in the development model, and consistent political support for strengthening the European Union.
The global health crisis caused by the COVID 19 virus is unprecedented if we think that we have never been, not even in times of war, in a situation of total freeze of economic activity, in most fields, in most countries of the world at the same time.
Like any major crisis, the coronavirus pandemic will have an end. After such a crisis, there will be winners, and there will be losers. However, this time, the status of the winner or loser will not be attributed immediately. Still, rather it will depend on the path the states, supranational organizations, or large corporations will follow after the crisis. Undoubtedly, beyond the destructions, beyond the casualties, the worst crisis of our generation will activate a series of opportunities because only a crisis of such magnitude has the strength to level asperities, to go beyond artificial blockages and to cause those disruptive decisions that can transform societies and individual lives.
As far as we are concerned, the coronavirus pandemic has caught us in a relatively stable situation. We are a member state of the European Union and, therefore, we have access to the entire organizational, financing and support infrastructure of a supranational structure that, although it initially responded slowly, has begun to act. However, neither the European construction nor the national states can boast exceptional performances in managing this crisis. It is a fact that we must accept with realism. It is the only valid attitude that can help us to approach with pragmatism the issue of European and national reconstruction after this crisis.
I have joined both terms – European and national – despite the temptation to place the European supranational construction in antithesis with the national foundations. I believe that, after this crisis, we can find ways to reconcile the federalist views that demand a stronger involvement of the EU in defending the European community from the economic, political or military expansion of other actors and those views partisan to the national states – that risk being “seduced” and quickly swallowed one by one by the same expansionist actors who do not share the essential values of our civilization and identity.
The European Union was born after a war that ravaged the continent, and it managed to maintain peace for over 70 years. The same European Union now has a great chance to be reborn, after a black decade marked by the rise of extremist forces (in many western states), authoritarian slippages (Hungary), the rupture caused by Brexit and the North-South / East-West divisions on the most diverse topics. The main condition for regenerating the European project lies in the ability of the Union and its Member States to make and implement the necessary tactical and strategic decisions to combat in solidarity the health and economic crisis.
The European citizen will be quickly born if, at the end of this health crisis, the European Union will be perceived as having put effort to directly and concretely contribute to the fight against the epidemic. Every safety mask, every emergency lung ventilator, every essential consumer goods that reach the people through the help of the European Union will mean as many blank cheques granted by the citizens of the Member States to the reinforced European project. In Romania, at least, expectations are very high, as revealed by the latest INSCOP Research opinion poll that shows that over 80% of Romanians believe that the EU membership can help us fight the epidemic.
Equally important will be the measures to overcome the economic crisis. The Union has already announced it will allocate significant amounts of which a part, over one billion euros, will go to Romania to support the healthcare system and affected small and medium-sized enterprises. But obviously, it is not enough. When we talk about strategic measures to overcome the economic crisis, we need to think on a large scale, to elaborate a project of relocation of production, consumption, and innovation models. The same European citizen will send the extremist forces that haunt the continent to irrelevance and will support the strengthened European project if the EU, in agreement with the Member States, will have the vision, the political will, and the administrative capacity to implement a genuine European “Marshall Plan” financed by European money, for the prosperity of Europe as a whole.
The most important levers of reconciliation between the federalist and the national visions faced by the European continent can be found in the details of this European “Marshall Plan”:
If it wants to remain relevant in this century, Europe as a whole and European states, in particular, will have to stimulate the relocation of production facilities across the Union. It is a project that can last up to a decade, but it must be started in force and immediately. The US has already initiated the process and is expected to amplify its efforts in this sense. The EU cannot blindly support a failed model of globalization, and it must be at the forefront of this transformation, in a more balanced formula to avoid the monopolization of production in a single geographical area. The relocation of production facilities must be carried out in such a manner that all Member States take advantage of the reindustrialization process. In this way, the Union will send, on the one hand, a strong political message. In essence, each member counts, and the economy of each country is helped, and, on the other hand, it will ensure a structured and balanced development of the continent, fully exploiting its immense demographic potential of over 500 million people.
A European “Marshall Plan” cannot ignore the issue of multi-speed Europe. Such a concept will always fuel either national frustrations or secessionist tendencies. Europe can function as a block only at a single speed whose intensity changes simultaneously. The Schengen Area that unfairly excludes some Eastern states, just because other Western are inventing pretexts to defend selfish economic interests or to satisfy local extremist reflexes, should include all Member States. For this objective to be achieved, some Western states will have to abandon unnecessary reflexes of superiority, and others will have to look deeper into their own shortcomings often caused by underperforming public systems, lack of integrity, and a political class impaired by systemic incompetence.
Also, a European “Marshall Plan” must aim to strengthen the European infrastructure of any kind, be it transport, sanitary, energy, ecological, or modern communications. The highways lacking in many Eastern European countries must be built in the next decade. Of course, we often blame the incompetent national administrations. Still, we cannot overlook the strange cockroach, abruptly invoked by anonymous European officials as a pretext for blocking a large European transport corridor linking Constanta seaport to Western Europe (Pitești – Sibiu highway).
Finally, a European “Marshall Plan” for the 21st century cannot ignore the continent’s intellectual and creative potential. Europe still has the most educated population, this type of intellectual capital being decisive for the innovation and technological production of EU states. We must protect and stimulate production by relocating high-tech industrial production to the continent, as well as by the distribution of facilities throughout the Union, in all Member States. Therefore, education should become a truly strategic field within the EU; an objective promoted including through treaties, through a curriculum more correlated to the concrete needs of this century’s economy, and through mandatory minimum budgetary quotas for financing the education systems for all Member States.
Regarding the national action, that of Romania in particular, I would like to make some observations related to the need for political and economic reforms. From a political point of view, Romanians have strong pro-European attitudes, so the risk of extremist-authoritarian deviations fueled by other anti-Western power centers are low at the moment. Therefore, political reform must firstly include a profound renewal of the political class. It is the responsibility of the political parties, big and small, to come with new candidates, more competent, more dynamic, and more righteous. And it has to act on a relatively short term, until the next local parliamentary elections. Otherwise, the risk of being swept away by the more and more frustrated population increases exponentially.
Right now, we have a President elected with a strong popular vote. Therefore, the President has the legitimacy to push for these transformations that imply a series of structural reforms such as the reform of the administration and the amendment of the Constitution – so necessary to clarify the type of political regime and not only.
Starting from 2024, when the presidential and parliamentary elections will be organized in the same year, Romania should return to mandates with the same duration for the President and the Parliament. We cannot rebuild in Romania under the permanent threat of political crises caused by having a president of one political color and a parliamentary majority of another color. We still do not have the maturity nor the institutional capacity to deal with public affairs during cohabitation periods, such as other countries do, like the US, for example.
Also, the political establishment must quickly reconfirm both the attachment to the European project and Romania’s vision on strengthening the EU in the next decade and on the Union’s economic recovery plan.
From an economic point of view, Romania needs to reinvent itself. Locating on the territory of the country as many production facilities as possible, from all fields, supported by Romanian or foreign capital, must be the zero priority of the next decade for all governments, regardless of their political color.
Redefining the role of the state in the economy can no longer be a taboo topic because we cannot run desperately to the state when the first serious crisis occurs, such as this epidemic, but to deprive it of resources during “peacetime,” invoking ultra-liberal recipes. Obviously, we cannot move towards extreme statism because no one wants to go from bad to worse. We’ll have to act pragmatically, not ideologically, when we fix our economy. The state must reduce the waste of public funds and allocate resources for public investments in infrastructure, agriculture, energy, research, education, health, in protecting the environment. These areas increase our resilience in the face of a crisis and bring added value to the economy. Also, the state must adopt smart regulations to stimulate private investments in a time when private money will become increasingly scarce. The exploitation of the Black Sea gas is an example, but not the only one. Within this project and others, the role of the state must be rethought by involving those solid companies where the state is the majority shareholder. In turn, these companies must be strengthened by promoting efficient management, not a politicized one. Such public investments or the support of large private investment projects are massively supported by the population, as shown by recent opinion polls published by INSCOP Research (here).
Last but not least, the current challenge caused by the return to the country of a large number of Romanians working in various European states could be turned into a great opportunity if we will have the capacity to relaunch the economy – strongly affected, before the epidemic, by the lack of labor force – and reintegrate them into the Romanian labor market. Except for some specific cases that have easily become subject of negative news, the vast majority of Romanians returning from other European countries these weeks are honest, trained people who have worked in efficient economic systems, and who can contribute substantially to the recovery of the national economy. Besides, their return in the country is well received by Romanians, as shown by opinion polls. More precisely, the population wants the state to take specific measures to encourage them to remain in the country after the end of the epidemic. Such measures would be a minimum compensation for hundreds of thousands of Romanian families torn apart by the largest emigration phenomenon that affected a European country in times of peace.
All the political and economic transformations, as well as Romania’s need to be an active contributor to the process of the EU rebirth, require a new Snagov moment, a trans-party agreement to support some major strategic lines of action. Regardless of the political camps, the country needs stable governance, more competence, and functionality in the administrative apparatus, coherent economic policies to stimulate production capacities and an active pro-European orientation focused on the objective of transforming and strengthening the European Union to the equal benefit of all its citizens in all Member States. It is unrealistic to expect and even wish for a unanimous national agreement. It would be a false, unconvincing and pointless spectacle. The democratic political competition must continue so that we can choose between different solutions. However, some strategic guidelines should be followed by all political forces, through a valid general agreement, as such guidelines give real meaning to our national and European interest.
*The author is political scientist, CEO of INSCOP Research, and coordinator of the Strategic Thinking Group project