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Written by Aziliz Gouez, Visiting Fellow, IIEA

This is the first in a series of analytical blogs examining the rise of populist movements and challenges to the liberal order across Europe today. This blog focuses on the alarming wave of anti-Western rhetoric which surged in Romania throughout the recent referendum campaign on whether to amend the Constitution to redefine marriage and the family as “a union between a man and a woman.”

Despite the ruling Social-Democratic Party’s (PSD) strong support for the ban on sex-same marriage, and notwithstanding an unusual extension of the voting period over two days, the referendum held on 6-7 October 2018 failed to meet the 30% participation threshold needed for the result to be valid. What does this “family referendum” tell us of the perceived anti-liberal push underway today in Romania, and why is this East-Balkan state facing a possible Article 7 rule of law procedure at the very time when it is also getting ready to assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in January 2019?

After Poland and Hungary, Romania is now in the line of fire over breaches of the rule of law and the EU’s fundamental values. Talk is mounting in Brussels of an Article 7 procedure being triggered, this time against a left-leaning government, whose ruling social-democratic party, the PSD, makes up the fourth biggest contingent of MEPs within the European Parliament’s Party of European Socialists (PES).

Concerns were first raised in December 2017 when changes to the country’s justice laws were ushered through the national parliament by the PSD majority. The contentious reforms, which undermine the independence of Romania’s judicial system and its capacity to effectively fight corruption, resulted in tens of thousands of Romanians taking to the streets for weeks on end. People were particularly irked by an ordinance aimed at lifting criminal sanctions for politicians and civil servants suspected of a “conflict of interest”. In recent months, the dismissal of Laura Codruța Kövesi, chief prosecutor of Romania’s anti-corruption agency, the DNA, and the heavy-handed repression of the 10 August protest in Bucharest have also prompted warning statements by European Commission first Vice-President and rule of law custodian, Frans Timmermans.

Over the weekend of 6-7 October 2018, Bucharest’s European partners watched closely as Romanians turned out to vote on whether to amend their Constitution to redefine marriage and the family as “a union between a man and a woman.” This vote held particular resonance with an Irish audience still alive to the discussions which surrounded Ireland’s own marriage equality referendum three ago. Although only 20% of registered voters cast their ballot over the two-day vote, well short of the required 30% participation threshold, it is important to examine the sequence of events which led to this referendum and the deeper trends it reveals.

Indeed Romania’s so-called “family referendum” is but the latest episode in an ongoing culture war which shakes the very foundations of the European Union as a community of values. The “traditional family” issue has progressively come to play the same function in Romanian political discourse as the question of migrants does in Hungary: it has become the locus for a critique of “Western decadence” and for a reassertion of an East-European identity which, as many in Eastern and Central Europe see it, has long been sidelined by Western cultural hegemony. Thus, in the same way as migration has become the crucible of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s political crusade in a country devoid of any significant numbers of migrants, the defence of family values has been blown up into a defining feature of Romanian society – a society for whom the question of gay marriage was until recently a non-issue.

This “traditional family” trope was pushed to the forefront of public debate by the “Coalition for the Family” (Coaliția pentru Familie), an association of about thirty non-governmental organisations who managed to garner three million signatures in 2015, in favour of the substitution of the term a “union between spouses” with that of a “union between a man and a woman” in Article 48 of the Constitution. The idea originated with a small group of American evangelical Christians. It was then picked up, propagated and amplified through the networks of the Orthodox Church, in a context of competition between religions (marked by the rise of evangelical Protestantism in Romania, including among Roma communities). Through church notices and Sunday masses, the debate has thus spread throughout the Romanian countryside, whose inhabitants were previously entirely oblivious to the issue of same-sex marriage.

The family debate is part of a wider revival of traditionalist discourse in the country. A number of Romanian intellectuals who have returned home after studying at French or American universities now decry the hold of Marxism and gender theory over Western academia. As in Hungary and Poland, we see the very trains of thoughts which galvanise segments of the urban youth and academic circles in the West feed an ideological counter-revolution in Romania, in terms that are uncannily akin to Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric on true European values and the defence of a white and Christian Europe. What is at stake, then, is not just a challenge to political liberalism as it was heralded in the post-1989 era, through the recognition of ideological pluralism and the balancing role of independent institutions, but also a challenge to cultural liberalism and its corollary of equal rights for ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.

In Romania, the push against liberal values is not carried by a new right faction as is the case, for example, in France, Slovenia, Sweden or Italy. This is arguably because illiberalism is largely intrinsic to the ideology of Romania’s dominant political party, the PSD. In response to mounting pressures from the Council of Europe, the European Commission, and its allies in the PES, this party has adopted a tone that is increasingly critical of the European Union and the Western model of society at large. In Romania as in Hungary, politicians are prone to instrumentalising “Brussels” so as to better establish the right of the nation to decide as it sees fit its justice laws or its conception of the family. As Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev put it, the current mood, in Central and Eastern Europe, is one of dismissal of “the imitation imperative” – be it in the guise of convergence, Europeanisation, integration or liberalisation. The “new Member States,” as they are still too often labelled, are no longer satisfied with the imitator’s condition of dependency, inadequacy, inhibited identity and involuntary insincerity. They will no longer be shunned from expressing their rejection of multiculturalism and societal liberalism. In effect, the recent discussion on the definition of family was overwhelmingly consensual in the Romanian political landscape. Only the USR, a small, urban, party chiefly based in Bucharest, and the new “Romania Together” movement, through its figurehead (former PM and EU Commissioner) Dacian Cioloș, explicitly opposed the proposed constitutional amendment and urged their voters to boycott the vote.

Importantly, the referendum campaign unfolded against a background of deep demographic anxiety in this East Balkan country. Referendum posters summoning voters to “protect Romanian children” – meaning: against adoption by Western gay couples – resonated with the traumatic memory of the infamous orphanages of the communist period. As in neighbouring Bulgaria and in Hungary, the demographic question is of central concern in contemporary Romania. It was a key theme of the Ceaușescu era, the end of which was marked by a dramatic surge in abortions (in the face of which even the Orthodox Church deemed it preferable to keep quiet). This demographic question has returned to the forefront, largely owing to the mass exodus of young Romanians to Italy, Spain and other West European countries in the last 15 years. While rural regions are being drained of their working-age population, many Romanian workers abroad struggle to find caring arrangements for their aging parents back home. This in a context where the healthcare system is drained, not just of financial resources, but also of its doctors and nurses (who have massively opted for the emigration path).

While exit rhymed with “defection” during the Cold War years, emigration became widely perceived by young Romanians as a gateway to the wide world in the 1990s. However it has since become a source of disillusion for many, feeding a hardening of domestic discourse on identity and national values. In the same way as the electorate of Poland’s far right party Kukiz’15 is largely constituted of Polish workers residing in Western Europe, many Romanians who find themselves competing with immigrants from other continents on the Western labour market express their feeling of humiliation across the social media, thus recalling racialist hierarchies that are reminiscent of the darkest hours of the interwar, far-right, Romanian Legion. The ongoing struggle around European values runs much deeper, therefore, than the alternative project put forward by new right parties across the Union. The next European Parliament and Commission will have to face head on, not just the cultural anxiety of majority populations in the West, but also the grave challenge posed by emigration to the social cohesion of the Eastern regions of Poland, Germany, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States.

This blog has been adapted from the original post on Friday, 5 October 2018 to reflect the outcome of the referendum.

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