SPIEGEL Interview with Romanian Prime Minister Ponta 'I Haven't Communicated Well Enough with Europe'

The European Union has been deeply critical of Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta's leadership. In an interview with SPIEGEL he speaks of his relationship to the Romanian judiciary, how Europe has misunderstood him and his dream of battling those who would tread on human rights.

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta: "I promise that you need not worry."
REUTERS

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta: "I promise that you need not worry."


Victor Ponta, 39, is the youngest head of government in the European Union and is also the most controversial. Elected by Romanian parliament on May 7, the prime minister leads a leftist-nationalist coalition and has issued a series of decrees that have led many to believe he is trying to monopolize political power in the country. The European Union has been sharply critical, with European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding even speaking of a "kind of coup d'ètat." Former Romanian Foreign Minister Andre Plesu wrote recently ina guest commentary for SPIEGEL that his country is on the cusp of a dictatorship. Ponta, formerly a public prosecutor and law professor, says that "such words from esteemed colleagues" have been particularly difficult to digest. It is clear, however, that the Romanian prime minister severely underestimated the European reaction to his approach to governance.

SPIEGEL is the first international media organization that Ponta has received since the storm of protest erupted, saying he wanted to speak "openly" about his positions. Still, he declined to answer questions relating to accusations that he plagiarized his Ph.D. dissertation. The interview took place in his office in Bucharest, within a gray, communist era structure. He was flanked by both a Romanian and an EU flag during the discussion.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, all of Europe is wondering who you are: a democrat, an authoritarian ruler or the perpetrator of a coup d' état?

Ponta: Ever since I took to the streets when I was 17 to protest at great personal risk against the communist dictatorship, I have been a passionate democrat. I led my party's youth organization during the negotiations over Romania's accession to the European Union in 2007. I am a committed European; a united Europe is Romania's future. And that informs how I act in my function as prime minister.

SPIEGEL: The European Commission sees things quite differently. You were recently requested to travel to Brussels where you were publicly accused of undermining the rule of law and democracy. Commission President José Manuel Barroso said that you have "shaken our trust" and demanded that you revisit decisions in 11 concrete instances. Does that not leave an impression on you?

Ponta: Of course it does. It hurts and it came as a shock for me. I have been in politics for 12 years and have always devoted myself to Europe, and now this. But if there are such doubts in Europe about a member state, then one has to comply. His approach is the most constructive way to get things back in order. Barroso is right.

SPIEGEL: Excuse me? You admit …

Ponta: … that I must realize that I haven't always explained my policies well, that I haven't communicated well enough with Europe. I have no problem with correcting misperceptions and clearing up misunderstandings that cause concern among our European partners. That is why, upon my return from Brussels, I accepted responsibility for clearing up all the points of criticism and taking the necessary steps to convince our European partners -- even those that are more the responsibility of parliament than they are mine.

SPIEGEL: Are we really just talking about misperceptions and misunderstandings? Let's go through some of the points. You have, for example, significantly limited the authority of the Constitutional Court.

Ponta: That was never my intention. A related decree was just annulled on my initiative. My government has promised to comprehensively respect the independence of the judiciary.

SPIEGEL: The EU also insisted that you nullify emergency decrees that would have given you the power to annul laws.

Ponta: On this point too I made clear that we will only act within the framework of the constitution. We also want to fulfil the request from Brussels that we install a politically independent ombudsman to monitor our democratic institutions. That, though, is a decision for the parliamentarians; I can't make that decision on my own.

SPIEGEL: Nobel laureate Herta Müller, who was born in Romania, has joined several other respected artists in complaining about limitations of artistic freedoms in the country under your government. She complains that the Romanian Cultural Institute has now been placed under the control of the Senate and has been "politicized" in the government's favor.

Ponta: I promise that you need not worry. Cultural independence is still guaranteed, as are press freedoms. You should see all the negative things that the Romanian press writes about me.

SPIEGEL: Still, the initiative to impeach your political enemy, the conservative President Traian Basescu, continues to be pursued. The nationwide referendum is scheduled for July 29.

Ponta: What people in Europe didn't understand: The impeachment proceedings were not my personal decision, but were the result of a parliamentary resolution resulting from the fact that a majority of the people's representatives are of the opinion that Basescu overstepped his powers. The Romanian constitution allows for such a referendum. But now, as requested by Brussels, an earlier procedure will be used: Only when over half of all eligible voters cast their ballots will the referendum be valid.

SPIEGEL: If only 45 percent turn out, but there is a clear majority against Basescu, do you think he should remain in office?

Ponta: That would then be his decision if he remains in office or not. He would have to ask himself in such a situation who he represents, but certainly not the majority of the people. But once again: I will keep my word even in such a situation.

SPIEGEL: Everything you say makes it sound as though you have changed course by 180 degrees, as though you have given in completely to Brussels.

Ponta: That is not my impression and that is not my style of practicing politics. But I am convinced that my detailed letter to the EU president indeed cleared up all existing problems.

SPIEGEL: Brussels would seem to be of a different opinion. Barroso sounded very skeptical even after having received your letter. He said he will judge you by your actions and not by your promises.

Ponta: As he should.

SPIEGEL: In the mean time, according to the EU report released on Wednesday, Romania is under special observation and the EU remains deeply concerned. That hardly sounds like a declaration of trust. Similar to Bulgaria, Romania remains under observation because of its inadequate judiciary reforms and rampant corruption. It is treated as a second-class member of the EU.

Ponta: That is nothing new. And the fact that these biannual EU reports exist is primarily Basescu's responsibility. Corruption has not abated during his time in office. On the contrary. Since joining the EU in 2007, we have fallen back six spots on the Transparency International list. But my government will do everything in its power to combat corruption. And we hope very much that we will be able to join the Schengen area in the autumn.

SPIEGEL: EU leaders have made the decision as to whether you will be allowed to join the Schengen visa-free travel regime dependent on your fulfilling your promises regarding democratic deficiencies.

Ponta: It would be a pity for us, but also a great loss for our partners, for all of Europe, if we were not accepted into the border-free zone.

SPIEGEL: Romania is suffering under an economic crisis. Your national currency has plunged to historical lows against the dollar and the euro, yet your power struggle with your rival Basescu seems to have crippled the economy. The €5 billion loan package you received from the consortium led by the International Monetary Fund is in danger.

Ponta: I have only been in office for 11 weeks, you really can't blame me for the Romanian economic crisis. Plus, the IMF loan is safe. Romania places great value in fulfilling its financial commitments. That we have done so has been confirmed, we have received our ratings. But we are of course in the middle of an economic crisis that we must combat. In overcoming the crisis, by the way, we are relying heavily on German investors.

SPIEGEL: Relations between you and the German government are strained. Your ambassador in Berlin was recently summoned to the Foreign Ministry due to concerns about measures taken by your government, a significant step in the world of diplomacy.

Ponta: We are doing all we can to appease Germany, something that I pledged to your diplomats here in a personal conversation. I have met with representatives of the German chamber of commerce and German businesspeople. Close ties with your country, a special friend of many years, is of particular importance to us. I would also like to invite leading politicians from Berlin to Bucharest.

SPIEGEL: It is very doubtful that they would accept such an invitation at the moment. Did it hurt you that Chancellor Angela Merkel called Basescu instead of you in recent days? Was that not a targeted affront?

Ponta: Of course I would have preferred it if she had called me. But there is a long-standing relationship between Merkel and Basescu, deep ties among conservatives, one has to accept that, it is completely legitimate. And I am optimistic that I will be successful in convincing the German government of my best intentions. It would help, of course, if Berlin were to listen to the arguments of both sides in Romania.

SPIEGEL: In public opinion polls ahead of parliamentary elections in November, your party is far ahead. You would seem to be anticipating a long political career.

Ponta: Indeed, I do.

SPIEGEL: Could you even live without holding a political office?

Ponta: As much as I love this profession, there is a life outside of politics.

SPIEGEL: What would you like to do instead of politics? Return to your former profession as a lawyer?

Ponta: Were I no longer in politics, I would work as a state prosecutor, maybe in my earlier position as lead prosecutor in the fight against corruption. I would also love to go the International Criminal Court in The Hague and practice my trade against dictators. That would be nice: To live in a united Europe and to prosecute these terrible politicians who have trod on human rights.

SPIEGEL: Mister Prime Minister, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Erich Follath

Article...


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e0000t 07/23/2012
1. Mr Ponta threatens the rule of law in Romania
Mr Ponta is a dangerous man. Or, rather, a weak man associated with corrupt businessmen and politicians from Romania, whose interest is in protecting themselves from the law. Mr Basescu is no angel, but under his leadership the system of justice in Romania has become much, much stronger, up to the point (previously unimaginable) of convicting a previous corrupt PM and sending him to jail. Mr Ponta, in reaction, went to visit that PM in jail and defended him publicly, while an entire country knew that the conviction was fully deserved. Mr Ponta is a dangerous man doing the bidding of dangerous people. Democracy in Romania is in danger, and Europe should keep its eyes on it. Fortunately, there is a smaller nucleus of politicians (like Mr Mihai Razvan Ungureanu, Mr Baconschi) and intellectuals, and of democratic-minded people (small entrepreneurs, educated people), who are fighting in defense of a European, rule-of-law Romanian state.
adrian 07/24/2012
2. very different behaviour internal/external
This government and the RO parliament have to be deeply monitored by EU. Who works in the background and plans all the dangerous steps done in the past few weeks? Fact is, the "coup d'ètat" started after one of the prominent member of Ponta's party and former PM got the final condemnation for corruption - a positive sign that the justice in RO started to work independently, but also an alert for other corrupted politicians.
adoracraiova 07/24/2012
3. Prime minister V. Ponta interview
The prime minister Victor Ponta is the most trustable person in this new Romanian government. Maybe you'd be surprised, but in fact he returned the laws and reglementations as they were before the president Basescu changed the. Basescu changed them stealthily and you did not know them. Now we'll have elections and we'll see the truth, but the ex. president Basescu is using all the tricks that an unfair man can use to remain in his position. Basescu asked for 50%+1 quorum on referendum, even if he didn't want this rule in 2007, when he was for the first time suspended. So, V. Ponta and the new team established the 50%+1 quorum. Now - about an hour ago, in the 24th of July - president Basescu asked for his supporter NOT TO vote. He asked them to not participate on this referendum. So, is it fair? Trust the Romanian people. We'll see the truth at the end of the 24 of July, but we trust in V. Ponta and the new government. It's just my opinion... Best regards from Romania!
johannos 07/26/2012
4. Clarification
Yes, the strategy of the opposition is (unfortunately) to boycott the referendum. Here are the reasons, based on the annexes of the referendum law passed these days by Ponta government: 1. the special voter lists (containing the votes of citizens outside of their circumscriptions) are NOT to be counted separately, so that multiple votes CANNOT be detected. 2.The number of stamps in use and the number of stamps LOST is NOT to be registered in the final reports. 3. The final counting reports will NOT state whether the number of votes found in the urns is equal to the number of voters registered and signed on the lists. 4. Mr. Ponta blatantly refused to install video cameras in the voting stations (although the referendum could have easily taken place in schools, already equipped with video cameras) 5. There is NO software to be used for counting and registering the votes, so that the multiple votes cannot be detected. All these changes of the referendum law made the opposition party to assume that a fraud is being prepared, hence they urged heir supporters to boycott the referendum. This is the ugly, sad truth.
dionisie 07/27/2012
5.
The relevance of Ponta as a person to in the current situation is somewhat irrelevant. The important factors that have to be noticed are the numerous warning received by Romania form EU under Basescu's mandate. Some of these warnings were concerning European funds, some were about procedures and institutions, but the most important warning was voiced about democracy. The very instant that it has been concluded that judges, which are to be the very core of the democratic process are politically controlled, the entire political class should have been dismissed. This is unacceptable. What does it take to actually fulfil the wishes of an entire nation? We see it takes a coalition, countless struggles and a strong resistance to political dirt. This alliance needs to be supported, even if it looks inexperienced at times. Democracy need to be reinstated and it just so happens Ponta and Antonescu were the men of the hour. Men will come and will go, what is important is to end this dictatorship and re-enter in normality at all costs. EU relations must be stabilized and built upon, in a truthful manner. The dictatorship of Basescu has to end.
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