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.