Former Romanian Prime-Minister, and leader of newly formed PRO România Party, Victor Ponta, cuts a youthful and energetic figure. At 46, it would not have been extraordinary to assume that his campaign to re-enter the Eastern European country’s political scene under a new banner was his first attempt in politics. However, as the interview with New Europe Editor Alexandros Koronakis progressed, Ponta gave off the aura of a measured, moderate, thoughtful politician, with traits of a seasoned and skilful political man, who has not been left untouched by his experience at the helm of the Romanian government between 2012 and 2015, his former career as a prosecutor, and even run-ins with the law, for which he has since been cleared.
Alexandros Koronakis: What do you think of the Romanian Presidency so far?
Victor Ponta: I would have done everything differently. I do not mean just to be against or to criticize. I’m a little bit disappointed. It is opportunity that only comes once in 14 years. We must have put on the agenda something that only Romania could do. I will give you an example.
The Eastern Partnership: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia. Take a look at Moldova: it is lost, this is an area that is very confusing. Ukraine the same, Georgia feels abandoned. We must have organized in Bucharest, or in another big city in eastern Romania, a summit with the Eastern Partnership countries. I am aware that something similar is going to take place in Brussels, but Romania missed this opportunity.
Second example: it is in the utmost interest of Romania to promote and to fight for the Western Balkans, starting with Serbia, but all the Western Balkan countries. We are behaving like we are on the other side of the continent, which is wrong.
Third: energy policy. We were gifted by God with natural resources in the Black Sea, but because of our narrow-minded internal strife, we have not been able to adopt the legislative package, and very soon TurkStream will be in place and Romania, Moldova, all the other countries -Ukraine- in the middle will remain outside. We will be a problem for Europe in terms of energy. And, on top of that, we added some meaningless subjects to the agenda, like, last week, the statement of our Prime Minister [Viorica Dăncilă], announcing the Government’s intention to move the Embassy of Romania to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. You can do this.
But first you need to have an internal consensus, which we do not have. And secondly, you cannot do it when you exercise the Presidency because you should have imagined what the reaction was going to be, it is going to be another headache for Europe. Overall, it is a lost opportunity. I hope that in 14 years, when we will have the opportunity again, we will be better prepared.
One of the most polarizing issues in Romania is justice. I know what you have vast experience with the justice system, not only as a prosecutor but as a public person subject to investigation, later to be cleared of everything. Where does the truth lie? Have there been people who have overstepped their mandates? What are your thoughts on this?
As you said, yes, I have a unique experience as a former prosecutor and a former indicted person. You should not envy me for any of this. But that gave me the opportunity to see both sides and to try to be balanced. First, Romania still needs an anti-corruption policy strategy, because, like all former communist countries, corruption is a way of living. If you give it the opportunity to rise again, it will. Secondly, of course I would say that anti-corruption also became a political tool to get rid of some of the people.
But in the end, it is the judges that made justice and – now I speak as a former prosecutor – I still believe that the judges make justice. Prosecutors accuse us, and there were important cases, not only me: Mr Tăriceanu (Călin Constantin Anton Popescu-Tăriceanu), the Chairman of the Senate, who was also indicted and acquitted by the Supreme Court, the Secretary-General of the Government, some other important people.
And of course, there were -there have been- convictions. The biggest problem is that Mr [Liviu] Dragnea (President of the Romanian Chamber of Deputies and President of the Social Democratic Party) is now the de facto leader of Romania. He has been convicted twice. He has started an immense battle against the entire justice system, including judges and prosecutors, not only prosecutors, [Laura Codruța] Kövesi is of course the most known person. And he has most recently transformed his frustration against it into a battle against Europe, because he sees the European Commission and Frans Timmermans as being on the side of the justice against him. That puts Romania, for the first time since we joined the European Union, into an unfortunate situation: to have a big political party being anti-European, and a big political leader.
We have never had anything like that. In 2014, I think we were one of the few countries in Europe that did not send to the European Parliament not even a single extremist, anti-European MEP [Member of the European Parliament]. Now, our biggest party, which still is the PSD (the Social Democratic Party), our most important leader, Mr Dragnea, and our government, they all have a very aggressive approach towards the European Commission and the CVM (Cooperation and Verification Mechanism).
The situation is very unbalanced. I should say that what Mrs Kövesi did as chief prosecutor was too much sometimes. She wanted to do too much; she did not respect all the rules. What is happening now to Mrs Kövesi is absolutely the same. But in the other direction.
Would you be supportive of Kövesi’s candidacy for the Chief European Public Prosecutor?
I would be just respectful to the European procedures. If the European Parliament voted for her, that is it. I am not going to fight against this. She played by the rules, right? She was a candidate. I do not like Mrs Kövesi.
I am not a personal supporter of hers, but I think that we have to respect the rules … Now remains the final negotiation between the Parliament and the Council. But to create a European political issue out of the Romanian government’s fighting against a person like Mrs Kövesi – I think that it is a big mistake for Romania. Everybody will very easily think that this is because she was such a great prosecutor. That is why the corrupt politicians in Romania are fighting her.
I mean, this is the easiest way, whatever explanation you give. No one will have the time or be open to listen to this. This is why I think that the government is making a huge mistake.
The biggest problem for us now is that President [Klaus Iohannis] has called for a referendum. The biggest problem for Romania is that we have consumed ninety-nine percent of our political energy on this. Ninety-nine percent of the news. Ninety-nine percent of our credibility in Europe in this meaningless fight for who is making criminal files against whom. Meanwhile, we have lost a lot of economic opportunities, development and energy. And this is a battle that in the end everyone is going to lose. Mrs Kövesi, she is going to lose. Mr Dragnea, he is going to lose. Romania is going to lose.
We are not paying at all attention to the big economic, social problems of Romania and this is consuming all our credibility outside of our country. There is nothing positive that we can get out of this battle.
What would you change? What would your blueprint for justice reform be?
I think that we should make an international audit, with credible people from Europe, not political ones, to give us a sort of a mechanism of how to appoint prosecutors, how to warrant independence of the judiciary. I would implement this system, without the President, without the government, without Parliament being involved in appointments, because the biggest problem now for Romanian justice is credibility: every camp accuses the other of using the justice system. This has also happened in Italy, for example, for many years, it has happened in other countries. If your justice system has failed, you must simply import, adapt and implement a system that is working somewhere else in Europe. And to give back credibility to it.
Romania cannot advance in Europe without Europe, but we cannot advance, a clear, transparent and efficient system. And I would give all the responsibility and the power to the judges. A prosecutor, speaking as a former prosecutor, should just be the lawyer of the state, accusing, and then the judges should have the power to decide. I am not giving advice from outside. I behaved like this. I got indicted. I stepped down. I went in front of the judges -for two years and a half- and the judges acquitted me. Then I came back to politics. If the judges had decided differently, I would have respected it. But the justice system in Romania needs a restart. And it needs to consume less political energy, because otherwise we will not be able to build anything else.
We have not built anything in these two years a half while we have been fighting over justice. We have not even built a single kilometre of highway. We have not built a single new hospital, all our energy has been dedicated to this.
I would like to go back and talk about your former political family, the Social Democratic Party. What went wrong there and what will it take to construct a centrist moderate party in the model of the Western European socialist parties?
I think that the Social Democrats – in general – have always pretended, and I am still speaking as someone who believes in social democracy, [to] give more credit to their principles than to their political interests. They have accused the European People’s Party for Mr Orbán’s behaviour, but, when it comes to Romania, the leaders of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) behave absolutely the same. They count the number of the PSD votes in the European Parliament and they fail to apply the same principles. And this is going to harm the campaign of Mr Timmermans, which is based on the rule of law and the independence of justice. And I just hope that PES and the S&D Group will really put their principles ahead of the political interest of having ten or eleven or twelve Romanian MEPs voting for them. I hope so. We will see on the 26th of May.
Going back to the time you were prime minister. What are the achievements or the results that you are most proud of? And is there anything you would have done differently?
There are a lot of things I would have done differently, and I am doing a lot of things differently now. We had a big political crisis into 2012. I was involved in this. I was one of the authors of that political fight. But after that, we provided stability and predictability, and we set the basis for a strong and sustainable economic recovery.
Since 2013, we have been one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. We have opened up our economy. All sectors of the economy have grown. Unfortunately, these gains are reversible. And some of the measures taken by the current government, in terms of fiscal rules and the economy, have proven to be absolutely poisonous; very wrong, and they have affected the credibility and predictability of Romania. We can already see the effects of it. Our economy has been slowing down, interest rates have been raised, and Romania is not any more such an attractive investment destination as a developing country in the East. But my biggest achievement as prime minister is something that even my harshest critics accept: That we gave the economic environment price predictability and stability.
And now looking forward, what do you want Romania’s geostrategic role to be?
You see, there is a security matter, that we are almost alone in the Black Sea area. Turkey, with its long love and hate relationship with Russia, is now in a stage of love, and strategically, that is a big change. Bulgaria, because of its internal mentality and tradition, will never do anything to offend or provoke Russia. That means that Romania, together with Poland, are the most stable and important countries in the region in terms of security.
Crimea is just an eleven-minute flight away from Bucharest, or, the other way around, Bucharest is an eleven-minute flight away from Crimea. I think that Romania should behave with clarity as a responsible and very stable member of NATO and the European defence system in terms of energy.
Once again, we have the Black Sea. We have the offshore resources; we should, we must be, and we can be an important provider of gas and energy with a single condition: to be clever with fiscal and legal conditions.
Thirdly, Romania should be the biggest advocate for the Western Balkans and for the Eastern Partnership: our longest border is with Serbia, Ukraine and Moldova. It is in our national interest, but it is also in the European interest, to move the relationship forward on both sides. Those would be if you ask me for three strategic goals that Romania should pursue. And we have missed all three of them during our Presidency, going back to your first question.
Now what about the big players China, Russia and Turkey? What should our relationship with them look like?
Romania should be like all other countries in Eastern Europe: we should be pragmatic, to stay with the European family but take every opportunity that we have. We are part of the geographic project of One Belt, One Road. Turkey is our biggest trade partner outside the European Union. We have taken part in many formats of cooperation in the Black Sea region and Southeast Europe.
We must be a country willing to receive and then to encourage investment and encourage trade relationships and commercial relationships. When it comes to a conflict like that, you must take a side.
I follow the EU-China relationship, the 5G and Huawei debates. Since 2013, I think Huawei has been one of the biggest investors in Romania and this year we were also supposed to go on the market with our 5G licenses. The commercial interest of Romania would be to use Huawei. But when it comes to a decision, when we must choose sides, then we should say to our Chinese friends: “We are sorry, we are of European descent and we are a strategic partner of the United States. Please understand that.” And they will understand. But, if we can avoid choosing sides on these economic issues, it will be better for Romania.
Bringing up the US, do you consider yourself an Atlanticist?
I strongly believe that, in terms of security for Eastern Europe, the United States is – for sure – the only superpower that can give us, and can assure our safety, at least until we will have a European army. We are not in the same position as countries that are far from Russia Based on this, Romanian society and myself, we see the Americans as the ones that save us from a presumable aggression from Russia.
Also, I think that the United States might be our most important partner in terms of energy because Turkey and Germany will benefit from gas from Russia. I do not see any reason why one of these big countries – or France – will invest in Romania when it comes to energy. The US has a strategic interest to invest, but then ninety percent of our economy is linked to the European Union. Four million Romanians live in the European Union. So, for as long as we will be able to understand the strategic partnership with the US and our belonging to the European Union, that will be to our benefit.
Then, of course, Mr Trump is provoking this relationship, he is challenging this relationship. And I should say that, on this, I am absolutely on the side of the people who think that Mr Trump’s position is more harmful than helpful. But I understand that Mr Trump wants to win the election next year and we, as Europeans, we should just try to do everything necessary to save the transatlantic relationship.
Let’s talk about your party, your new party: PRO România. What is the aspiration? What do you want and hope to achieve?
I think that my former party, the PSD, has shifted very much away from a centre-left, pro-European, pro-development party. It went slightly to the corner, with very populist nationalist speech, sort of a FIDESZ but without a clear ideology. That left many voters in the centre and centre-left without an option because it is very difficult to imagine someone who has voted ten times for the Social Democrats switching directly to the Conservatives.
For these reasons, we are building this start-up party, for social liberal people; the ones who think that you must be economically liberal, and also that a society like Romania needs a lot of social measures. And it seems that even if it will not be a big majoritarian party – I am not aiming to take fifty percent of the votes in the next elections – we can still build a social liberal, pro-development, pro-European party with people able to govern.
Then having Corina Crețu, as [European] Commissioner [for Regional Policy], it also gives in our ranks and main candidate for the European Parliament, the clear message, that fighting Europe can be nice, but it is never productive. Romania needs to be pragmatic and needs to be productive in its relationship with Brussels, despite the fact that, undoubtedly, a lot of things should improve in Brussels. But it is obvious that, for Romania, being a member of the European Union is a hundred times better than not being a member.
You mentioned Corina Crețu; She’s on your list and is a very significant European figure for Romania. What do you imagine her role is going to be in the party?
She is, as I said, she is our main candidate; our flag bearer for the European elections. I imagine her not to be just a common MEP but rather based on her experience as a former MEP and European commissioner to be a strong voice in the European Parliament. I know very well that MEPs are over 700 – but really important ones are [very few]. And then, of course, Corina should be for Romania the person who will always keep us on the new European path. And she knows from inside what has to be changed in the Parliament and Commission, she will tell us ‘This is the direction of Europe’, which by the way no one is really clear about … So she will keep Romania connected to the European developments and this is very important for us.
Are you going to be running a candidate in the presidential elections in Romania?
Are you going to be willing to support your former political opponent President Iohannis?
I would not. Not simply because I can. I understand politics. Sometimes your enemies and opponents become your allies, and your best allies become your opponents. But I still do not see from Mr Iohannis how he wants to implement a big strategy for Romania; not only fighting Mr Dragnea and the corrupt people. That’s good. Everybody agrees with this. But Romania needs much more than this. This is important but it is not enough.
Then of course of Mr Dragnea is going to run. We are not going to support him for obvious reasons. That implies that he is running just to protect his person, not necessarily [because he has] a strategy.
The European elections will be the first elections that we are taking part in; we will be born as a party as soon as we will have our first vote for the party.
We will decide and, most probably, we will have our own candidate, a centrist, social liberal candidate for president. But to be very honest, we have right now twenty-one MPs in the Romanian Parliament. We wish to have several MEPs in the European Parliament and we wish to focus on the government of Romania because the numbers looks pretty dark and it seems that the Romanian economy will need someone to govern it very soon.