Liberalism as the antidote to corruption
Romanian MEP Ramona Strugariu on taking the rule of law agenda of a protest movement to the EU level
The 2010s have been a turbulent, but also extremely fruitful, period for Romanian democracy. In ten years, the country has changed governments eleven times, with mass protests blocking Piata Victoriei in Bucharest for countless nights, in winter as well as in summer. Civil society has risen up on many occasions: against the development of a silver mine in the Rosia Montana reserve, in defence of the rule of law and, most dramatically – against the corruption and mismanagement that lead to the death of over 60 people in the Colectiv nightclub fire incident of 2015. One after another, the protests swept away cabinet after cabinet and politician after politician, all largely seen as obsolete at best and dangerous at worst.
This civic mobilization produced much more than a series of reshuffles of the same old faces. In a process that can be described as creative destruction, the unrest on the streets of Romania’s big cities spawned new movements that grew into parties – mostly liberal – and gave rise to fresh political faces. One that stood out belongs to Ramona Strugariu.
From the squares of Bucharest to the Espace Leopold
Strugariu, who is currently a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the Renew Europe Group, is a law graduate with more than a decade of experience in the NGO sector. She ran for office on the ticket of the liberal PLUS (Freedom, Unity, and Solidarity Party) fraction, a movement born on the squares of Bucharest in 2018, which is now working alongside another rising political party that started as a civic movement, the Save Romania Union; both groups lean towards the centre-right of the liberal spectrum.
So, why join a new movement and not the classical Romanian liberal party? “I didn't trust them,” says Strugariu, who says that until the anti-corruption protests of winter 2017, she never thought about entering politics, focusing instead on her work in the NGO and international trade sector in Brussels. “At the same time, I was involved with what was happening in civil society in Romania, I was one of the civic voices at the time. Of course, I was one of these people who took to the streets when something profoundly wrong happened with our legislation on justice… and I had seen the high-level corruption that led to the big fire in the Colectiv club,” she says.
A turning point
For her, that tragic event that shook Romania in 2015 was the turning point. “[It] revealed the absolute incompetence of the ruling party and the government, the weakness of the medical system, and the fact that if we do not make profound changes, the consequences will be absolutely tragic,” Strugariu says. In the aftermath of the incident, she and other Romanians from the diaspora tried to help the survivors of the fire by organizing fundraisers, but for Strugariu, it became obvious that the problems ran much deeper. “We were discovering the absolutely incredible elements of a very, very sick system that led to a situation where lives were lost on a whim due to indifference and incompetence. And that was my wake-up moment, when I realized that, ok, as a member of civil society, you can make a difference by offering prompt support for a specific community for a limited time. But if you want to change things systemically, you need to take the next step and get into politics. Because systemic changes happen only with political will.”
Now that the USR-PLUS coalition has risen to become a formidable political force represented in the European Parliament, Strugariu is taking this sort of attitude to the European level. “This is the ultimate battle to fight: for these values, for the fight against corruption, for the independence of the judiciary. And this is a message I have been repeating constantly – that democracy is not a given. It is not something that just happens and we can continue having it without doing anything, nor is the EU a given that can easily be preserved,” she warns. To her, processes similar to those in Romania, where civic voices are raised and clash with a wall of incompetence, corruption, and authoritarianism, happen everywhere around Europe today.
She cites the recent protest movements in Bulgaria and Belarus as examples – both of which she backs vocally. Her tweets in support of the Bulgarian anti-government and anti-graft protests (“Bulgaria, you are not alone. We are not blind. Basic democratic rights are not negotiable,” she wrote) received huge applause in Sofia. Her Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs Committee in parliament adopted a resolution on Bulgaria’s rule-of-law failings, which gave a boost to the protesters, signalling that they were not alone, that someone in Europe still cared about the rule of law in their country.
Democracy is an everyday exercise
Strugariu believes that another essential element for keeping democracy healthy is a vibrant media landscape. “If you want to have a true balance of power in a state, it is not enough to have a separate judiciary, executive, and legislature. You always have to refer to the fourth fundamental cornerstone, which is a free media,” she says. “Because when the oligarchic system, or any kind of foreign interference, propaganda, or disinformation, influences our media, it shakes our democratic structures to a degree that we don't even realize,” she adds. Yet, as a liberal, she does not see the answer to this problem in restrictions. “The response… is not censorship, but a powerful independent media, education, and a very well-informed society which knows how to get information, has access to a variety of sources, and believes in pluralism. This requires solutions that you can't build overnight; they take a lot of resilience and a lot of effort, a joint effort by government and society at the same time.”
The MEP believes that the EU could do much more in order to boost its people’s understanding of the Union’s mechanisms, how it works for them, and why it is important. “We lost a lot of time organizing conferences about the importance of the EU, talking to ourselves in these closed bubbles, instead of going deep into the member states and discussing, with very clear examples, how it truly helps their economies,” she says. “It is not surprising to me that we have such episodes like Brexit and outbreaks of populism all around Europe.”
Yet, she is reluctant to accuse the people for this upsurge of poor leadership. Looking at the example of Eastern European countries turning back to conservatism and patriarchal values, Strugariu stipulates that change takes time and adjusting to the new realities is never easy – and often leads to backlash. “Part of it has to do with culture and history. I wouldn't point an accusing finger and, say “oh, it’s the people’s fault”, and that a government is a mirror of its society. It is true that this is the case sometimes, but at the same time, looking back at my own country, at all of those years of communism, I remember very well how my mother spent half of her life at home, bringing up me and my brother. That was the ultimate goal of her life. Abortion was forbidden because of Ceausescu’s plan to increase the population. Also, a very large part of Romania’s population – as in many other countries – is religious and it has to do with a certain attitude and position of the church towards liberal ideas and female empowerment,” she says, concluding that societies don’t change overnight and a lot of educating needs to take place before a change of attitude occurs.
Even then, the battle between the liberal worldview and conservative values will not be over, she says. “I don't believe that society will ever close these chapters really. They come up on the agenda as the society changes and it evolves,” Strugariu notes. And she warns: “Populism can rise again, conservative ideas can gain momentum, illiberalism is growing – that is a simple fact. History shows that it is possible to move from a period of flourishing development to a period of extreme backlash in terms of liberty, freedom, and prosperity.”
The contested role of women in politics and society
It is only natural that, in Romania, change comes slowly and painfully on touchy topics like female empowerment. “And if you go to the Romanian region of Moldavia, one of the poorest regions in Europe, you'll still hear people saying that the women who take part in political meetings or debates are just there to bring the cookies and coffee. We are talking about a country where 60% believes that physical violence and domestic violence are justified in certain situations. It is considered normal that you slap your wife or kid, or – once in a while – your husband – because it is ok, that this is something that actually works.”
She says that she had faced her fair share of misogyny but does not let the pain overwhelm her during these moments. “It has happened to me, without affecting me as much as it might have hurt other women. But I know how it hurts, I've seen it with people, and it will not stop by itself. We need to take an active stance against it. We've seen it in the plenary of the EP, it is not as if it is happening only indeep rural Moldavia,” Strugariu says. What keeps her going is her perception of the responsibility she has. “I didn't care. I truly believe in my own head, my two hands and two feet, and in everything I stand for and was fighting for, and I don't do it for myself. I am representing people now, it is a huge responsibility,” she says.
To her, this can only change through the systemic implementation of social and economic policies that help women to fend for themselves. “We say that we want women to have more and more time to gain a bigger role in society and in leadership, to take over the political agenda as well, but the next question is – what does this system look like?,” she asks. “Are there schools that will keep their children in after-school programs until 5PM? Are their domestic partners able to take paternity leave as well? Do they understand the importance of supporting each other in this process? There are many aspects affecting women’s empowerment and a lot of them have to do with economic models, with social measures, and with the mentality, of course. But we need to make very concrete steps,” Strugariu concludes.
The politician says it is urgent to take steps in this direction now if we want to see results in our own lifetime, giving the example of the Nordic states. “The first time countries like Sweden and Denmark started talking about sexual education in schools was in the beginning of the 50s. It took 70 years since then for their societies to consider the need for female representatives in the political scene.” She knows that is hard from her own experience in the NGO sector. “I have been part of programmes that profoundly change communities in a matter of years, where children were abandoned by their extremely young mothers. I saw the reactions of these parents and young mothers, because they were afraid, they were in this whole context of poverty, violence etc. I also saw the reaction of part of the specialists who were supposed to help them and explain birth control and life choices. There was plenty, plenty of work to do.”
Focusing politics back on the real issues
The problem for her is that instead of focusing work on this issue, many politicians are excessively preoccupied with their own personal agenda, or as she puts it: “With their corruption schemes and special interests, or seeking ways to interfere in the judicial system to promote their chosen people and hide their indiscretions. It is so, so sad.” This, however, gives liberalism a chance to shine. “I think that liberal parties can contribute these days because we can see these problems. It is our time now,” Strugariu says.
What she brings to Brussels is her can-do attitude and an understanding of her responsibilities. “In terms of policy, the EP is responsible for the destiny and the decent living conditions of about 500 million people. This is what I am doing, it has nothing to do with myself, and I don't care if some man is stubborn about it. I just do my job, this is it,” she says, adding that if there is one quality that women bring to politics more than the average man does, it must be sensitivity. Maybe this is the reason why Strugariu is considered “one of the ten most influential members of the European Parliament in terms of networking and the ability to build bridges”, according to the Brussels watchdog VoteWatch Europe.
As a conclusion, her message to women is simple and concrete – be more self-confident. “Let’s just do the things that are worth doing, and actively encourage other women to take a lead. Self-confidence is so important – women don't have to look at themselves through the mirror of a certain culture or past prejudices. They should be looking at the mirror, seeing themselves today, and looking at the future because they are building it.”