Do not „blame Brussels”. The Romanian institutions need to reform themselves while delivering reforms Video Interview with the Head of the European Commission Representation in Romania

Do not „blame Brussels”. The Romanian institutions need to reform themselves while delivering reforms <span style="color:#990000;">Video Interview</span> with the Head of the European Commission Representation in Romania

I have dialogues in which some communities of interest bring into discussion all their problems, many of which can obviously be solved only at national level. The expectation is, however, that everything should be solved in Brussels and the other side of the coin is that Brussels is to blame for everything. I have often said that the Romanian institutions need to reform themselves while delivering reforms, says Ramona Chiriac, Head of the European Commission Representation in Romania.

In this interview with, she stressed the need to counter the populist strategies and disinformation through which Russia, for example, is trying to destabilise the European Union’s solidarity policy.


The European elections are coming - and not just in Europe, there will be elections in the United States as well. All take place under the sign of a global threat that we keep talking about, i.e. the rise of extremist, populist, semi-democratic organisations and currents, so to speak. How can we counter this rise of extremism and populism?

Indeed, 400 million European citizens will go to the voting booths. The European elections will take place between the 6th and the 9th of June. What we want to see is that we all understand the importance of the European project and how we intend to defend Europe when we vote in these elections. The European project is undoubtedly an area of democracy like never before in the world. It is important for all and we need to know how to communicate it as such.

We look at this increasingly unfortunate „marriage” between disinformation and the power of digital platforms, which leads to an impressive multiplication of fake news and against which we often think we cannot fight fast enough.


Faced with these things, populist and extremist voices certainly become increasingly significant. Populism promises everything. It promises it now, and it promises it for everyone. Populism proposes simple solutions to complex problems. The problems we have been facing for years now, during what we already call a „permacrisis”, are certainly not simple.

Therefore, our responses must be complex. Yes, it is also our task, as communicators and as representatives of the European Union, but also the task of national authorities, to know how to communicate these complex problems to the people.

Populism is not part of the solution, because populist leaders sprout from crises, they feed on crises and then the interest is only to maintain this crisis situation.

When we look at these years, at the pandemic we emerged from, at Russia’s illegitimate war against Ukraine – and there are now two years of everything this war has meant: the energy crisis, a food crisis in a large part of the world, a cost of living crisis – no doubt that we all find ourselves in a context of fear, of anxiety. People then tend to look for simple answers or look for culprits to point to and they can easily say “Brussels is to blame”.

We took these things very seriously and there is a whole set of regulatory, legislative measures that we took to prepare ourselves.

I am thinking of a well-known mechanism, one that is slightly older – the Rule of Law Report. Every year, all member states are subjected to this magnifying glass through which we look at everything that means the rule of law – the fight against corruption, the way justice does its job, the freedom of the press, the media pluralism – very valuable things in this context of disinformation we were talking about.


Then, of course, we have the Digital Services Act, which is a pioneering measure globally. I would like to emphasise this because it is a source of pride for the European Union. We, together, are the first in the world to have made this effort to understand the online space and to regulate it.

As long as the digital space serves our interests, we are on the right track. What this Digital Services package has brought was precisely additional transparency and a strengthening of our rights as users.

There is one simple principle I really like and I want to mention it here too: what is illegal offline, in real life, must also be illegal online. If you cannot be attacked in the street without repercussions, then online too you shouldn’t be attacked without there being certain penalties. If you go to the store and buy something, and you don't receive the product or the service you paid for – this shouldn’t be possible online either.

However, looking at the online environment, we could define it as a „Wild West”. And here we are taking on the task of regulating everything that the digital environment means.

Since last December, from the perspective of the elections, there is also this package to protect our European democracy – and we understand that we must defend it. My son’s generation thinks having roaming is granted, being able to go on an Erasmus trip is granted, but these are things we have to fight for. There are countries that have found out the hard way that they don’t have access to these things anymore, now that they are no longer part of the European project.

You mentioned the digital environment, and you also mentioned the defence of democracy. There are third-party forces, beyond the domestic populism, that are trying to compromise this Western democracy. I am looking at Russia, we have warning signals that in recent months they have somehow accelerated their interference in the European political affairs. How are things looking from this point of view? What are the threats posed by Russia from the point of view of the democracy and the upcoming elections and what can we do here? Authoritarian regimes have an advantage, they manipulate on social media platforms, which is something democratic leaders cannot do, because they follow the rules.


Yes, exactly. The European project is built on certain values, on certain fundamental principles. This is our strength – staying anchored in these values. One of these values, however, is freedom of expression and the right to have unhindered access to information.

Or, one can somehow get the feeling of looking at a Trojan horse, in the sense that this generosity of ours, as European project, to grant freedom of expression to everyone, turns a bit against us when we see that in our European community’s territory, in the name of this freedom of expression, there are third-party states or entities - whether private or state-owned - that manipulate and show only quarter-truths, half-truths, wrapped in scraps of lies. And then, in December last year, we again took a measure, called our „Defence of European Democracy” package, built on three pillars.

Firstly, we would like it to generate the transparency of everything that means representing a third party’s interest within the European Union; there should be national registers, national authorities where one who represents the interests of a foreign entity must register as such. We hope this would bring to the surface the way in which there may be foreign forces that truly undermine all our efforts for European unity. As a parenthesis, I’d like to say that in this context we are undoubtedly in an information war. There aren’t any bombs, but there are lies, fake news, and this is also a very important war that we need to fight.

The second component I was telling you about is our interest in solid electoral processes. People need to understand that voting is the most important democratic weapon they have and they should go vote. Romania finds itself in the „year zero” of Romanian democracy, in that all election types take place this year.

The third component of this package is clearly the importance of civil society and community of interest participation in everything that the democratic process means. Nine out of ten Europeans see the participation of civil society as fundamental. I also often encounter this narrative, that Brussels imposes or the Romanian leaders impose things. There is an astonishing gap between the citizens and what leadership would mean, and this concerns us at the European level.

We are sent to every capital of the Member States to bring information close to people. In Romania, there are 24 centres that act as sort of our bureaus, their task being to maintain contact with the citizens. Hence, all the efforts are there.

To close the circle, though – there is undoubtedly a very serious process to undermine our social cohesion. As communicators, we also look at these social bubbles in which we each seem to live. Certain messages reach certain communities. There are some digital, technical structures that I, for one, not being in this field, cannot even imagine, that are reached only by anti-European, anti-science, anti-anything messages.

How do you get to these people? Because we know that people tend to believe those theories that confirm their emotions, their fears and that generally confirm their belonging to a community. Communities are closed. How do you get a pro-European message to communities that have been bombarded with anti-European messages, not directly but through anti-vaccine or anti-science movements, various movements that would in principle have nothing to do with democracy but which, taken together, undermine precisely the pro-European dimension?

A very important thing for me is to always communicate that we have a shared responsibility between the European institutions and the national states to win the hearts and minds of citizens, in any member state. The fact that this feeling has been perpetuated every year and that it works perhaps all the more so in a society with certain paternalistic reflexes in which things are imposed, has only done harm to everyone.

I cannot speak just myself about these things on a daily basis, all national authorities need to speak about them. We are working with regional and local authorities, we have built a network of European leaders and local councillors - all in an effort to build bridges between us and the citizens, because the citizens are reached by the mayor of their town or commune, that is the voice they listen to.

In our turn, we have all sorts of actions through which we go locally with these European centres, of which I am very proud. I would like to thank them again for everything they do. What we started to do is communicate on deliverables. We say “80 billion euros” but then an ordinary citizen, whose condominium hasn’t been renovated in 30 years, will say “where is this money? I am looking at my life and I don’t see it”.

There are a lot of deliverables. Anywhere you go in this country you see billboards that say „this is a European project”, „these are European funds” - in any corner of development in Romania.

One problem that is very seriously affecting our effort to communicate in a targeted way is this literally uneven development of Romania, the regional disparities, the cohesion funds - their level is enormous.

There are billions of euros that, after so many years of Romania’s participation in the European Union as a member state, finally have an impact, but still an insufficient one. The region I come from, the North-Eastern region of Romania, stands at 30 % of Europe’s average welfare.

And no motorway.

There will be one soon.  It is a source of joy for me that the so-called „Moldova Motorway” is being built with funds from the National Recovery and Resilience Plan, and this money will connect a part of Romania that didn’t have an easy access to Europe and vice versa.

What does one tell the people in the region of Moldova if this region is left unconnected? One tells them that, in general, the centre and the European Union are not very concerned with that region and thus one can fuel not only scepticism towards central politics, but also towards the European Union.

Exactly. However, looking at the NRRP, of which we hear and talk about every day, infrastructure investments take the largest share of the budget. This country needs infrastructure, and the infrastructure is robustly financed through the NRRP. First is infrastructure, second education and third health. I think these are all directions where Romanians want to see results and which, once delivered, I hope will further convince people.

You have a difficulty, though, because people know that Romania had a lot of European money at its disposal, yet Romania hasn’t accessed this European money and that is why we don’t have in due time a functioning infrastructure and healthcare system. How can you cover what the Romanian authorities haven’t done, even in terms of communication? The EU is making money available to Romania, yet the hospital and the motorway haven’t been built.

This is why I am very fond of the principle of going together, communicating together, explaining together and correctly what the limits of competence are.

I have dialogues in which some communities of interest bring into discussion all their problems, many of which can obviously be solved only at national level. The expectation is, however, that everything should be solved in Brussels and the other side of the coin is that Brussels is to blame for everything.

However, know that the absorption rate has increased in an impressive way. This NRRP is also a very good mechanism, because it is a combination of reforms and investments. That means the money isn’t simply provided, but it is given based on the performance criterion. The Romanian state will have to deliver the reform or investment, and only then will receive the money.

If we look at all that has already been achieved within the first two payments, the third payment being now under analysis, these are very big steps. We are talking about a qualitative leap as far as both reforms and the legislative framework are concerned, in many directions.

I have often said that Romanian institutions need to reform themselves while delivering reforms. It’s not easy, as you said, there are gaps of maybe many years that need to be covered. However, until 2026, which is the finish line for the NRRP, they will indeed need to be covered. From what we see, there is a good pace in Romania. The country is in the top ranking in terms of number of payment requests, so also in terms of reform and investment efforts.

Would Romania have managed, for example, during the pandemic had it not had the European mechanisms at its disposal?

My answer is NO. The fact that we ensured access to the vaccine, for the same price and at the same time for all European citizens was an extraordinary thing. If we recall, during the first months of the pandemic there were all sorts of air transports that had to reach a country and didn’t make it anymore. Had we had a context of competition within the European Union, in which perhaps states with more financial power could say „we buy this”, maybe the situation would have been different.

This is what third countries such as Russia and China tried to do, right? To induce this idea of a lack of solidarity within the European Union during the pandemic. Now there are these narratives about farmers and the economic problems in the European Union that Russia keeps pushing ahead of elections. How can we respond to that?

This is indeed a systemic risk. We are often in a position to react, to be reactive, and then there is no space to be proactive and to promote your positive messages anymore, if all the time you have to deconstruct, to explain lies or fake news. We find ourselves in this situation, but I would say that the European unity was indeed visible when it was time to show its strength.

What about the Schengen file?

You know very well that we, at the level of the European Commission, have been extremely vocal, extremely determined ever since 2011. Considering the 13-year blockage, I think this is a crucial step in the right direction. As of the 31st of March, checks at air and sea borders will be lifted. After this, the European Commission’s expectation and openness is to work and deliver all the information that Council needs.

Do you have a timeframe?

We have worked very closely with all the presidencies. Once again, the ball is in another field.

The Council of the European Union will take the decision, as always.

We insisted that Romania and Bulgaria met all the technical criteria. We, the European Commission, invited national experts from countries that may have had doubts to come and see how Romania and Bulgaria were performing in the border management area.

Do you think this unanimity mechanism should be a bit re-examined as far as some crucial decisions are concerned? We have seen that decisions on supporting Ukraine can also be blocked, because the vote has to be unanimous.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has said, including in her speech last year, that we are undoubtedly in a moment of reflection.

We have granted the status of candidate countries, we have proposed to open negotiations - the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia have clear perspectives. How do we prepare ourselves internally?

The President has said that in the first half of the year we will bring out some reflection materials which will of course be discussed with all Member States. Will something that started with far fewer members still work with 30 members? How do we optimise this? There are many discussions.

What I can confirm is that this is indeed a very serious reflection process. But I will always refuse this antagonism. The enlargement of the European Union and the deepening of the European Union - that is, everything related to cohesion - can be done at the same time. Romania’s accession to the European Union was also accompanied, at that time, by this concern.

Romania is a member State of the European Union that has delivered exceptional aid to Ukraine. All Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed with open arms. Romania is however a border country, and it currently delivers 60 % of the effort along the Solidarity Lanes. These are things that Romania can be proud of and that I have always encouraged the national authorities to talk about.

They talked less, though. It seems even Ukraine has spoken more about the aid it receives from Romania. Last week, after Vladimir Putin tried to push for the revisionism of Romania and Hungary, we saw a reply from Ukraine which insisted on mentioning that Romania had greatly helped the neighbouring country during this war. The Romanian authorities seem to be rather silent about it.  

I can tell you that in Brussels, within the European Commission, Romania’s effort is very visible, talked about and appreciated as such.

Will we manage to support Ukraine in this war? If the United States block their financial aid, will the European Union manage regarding this issue without the United States?

The relationship of the European Union with the United States, as it has been promoted by the European Commission, has always been one of partnership. And it will always remain so. Transatlantic cooperation is crucial. This is where we start from in any approach. Many other files connect us, everything that means our Green Deal, the environmental objectives, everything related to digitalisation. Pandemics, environmental problems, cyber attacks do not stop at national borders or on certain continents. Hence, there will certainly be a strong dialogue.

The Republic of Moldova has also joined the file related to Ukraine’s accession to the European Union and they’ve done well to do so. How irreversible is this process in which the Republic of Moldova has practically embarked on the European path? We know that the Republic of Moldova is nevertheless a preferred target for Russia, at least in the hybrid warfare?

The Union has granted it the status of candidate country and the invitation to start negotiations. This means putting this country on a development path, the European one, which includes the objectives that the member states also have.

The European Union is the largest provider of financial assistance to the Republic of Moldova. It is the European Union that has extended the roaming access part to the Republic of Moldova, as well as the connection to the energy grids. Of course, we all live in this very difficult geopolitical context, but what we see from the Republic of Moldova is a sustained, phenomenal effort on the part of the entire government apparatus.

I will have the joy of meeting with the President quite soon, and again with the Prime Minister. There were discussions in which one felt that emotion Romania may also have had before its accession, that desire to do things well. It is our historic duty, as European community, as European Commission, to respond to these countries when they show us that they want to be part of our community.

From this point of view of the so complicated geopolitical context and of the crises that overlapped in the European Union, is it a good signal that Ursula von der Leyen has already announced she wants a second mandate at the European Commission?

As you know, the congress of the political family that President von der Leyen also belongs to will take place in March. These things will be discussed within the political family. For me it is a source of pride to look at a leading woman who has courage, who has vision and who has sailed with determination through these exclusively crisis times.

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