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Romania needs an active and present president, who does not step in only when crisis strikes, Save Romania Union (USR) presidential hopeful Dan Barna tells AGERPRES in an interview.
He adds that if he wins the elections, Romania will have for the first time a president from the private sector, after "two teachers, a book publisher and a ship commander" who came from the public sector.
Regarding foreign policy, Barna bets on credibility, predictability, and also on a more consistent attitude in the Eastern European region, noting that, since its accession to the European Union, Romania has been a "rather vague presence in terms of European design."
The directions he would like to support in his tenure are: digitisation, construction of motorways, railway infrastructure development, education support. Dan Barna also says that he wants to make it mandatory for the president to attend the government meetings which debate the state budget of issues of national interest regarding foreign policy, country defence and ensuring public order.
AGERPRES: The Orban Government has won the confidence vote. Was this an outcome you expected?
Dan Barna: Obviously it was a complicated effort to generate a new majority. We were trying to test this majority, to see if it exists, beyond the censure motion and the confidence vote. When it came to parliamentary initiatives it did not work. It did not work for in "No Convicts in Public Offices." But on Monday, fortunately for Romania - and I say so because it was really a big stake getting rid of the Dancila Government - there were 240 votes, which shows that we have a razor-thin majority government, a government that is based on a very thin support. But it is good news to Romania that after 34 months - the Social Democratic Party (PSD) Government started on January 4, 2017 - we are getting rid of probably the darkest PSD Government Romania has had. The fact that we came out of this logic and we have another government, which, anyway, will be much better than what we have had so far is a sign of recovery for Romania. And from this perspective, I strongly believe that the stakes of the presidential election, of the first round at least, is to have a second round without PSD, which reflects that 30 years after its [December 1989] Revolution, Romania reached political maturity to drastically censure a party that has completely withdrawn from the citizens' agenda.
This is what we all could see in these 34 months: from a governing programme that promised a modern and European country, we actually got a state and a government whose sole purpose was to attack justice and destabilise the functioning of institutions. The fact that we have now managed to eliminate this nightmare, I think is a remarkable thing.
AGERPRES: What will you do if the objectives of the National Liberal Party (PNL) pact are not implemented?
Dan Barna: I have stated from Parliament's rostrum that USR will support the Government being voted into office - which happened - but we will continue to be very present and very active in monitoring and putting pressure on this government to take up the objectives that we jointly agree on. The prime minister confirmed that those objectives will be addressed: we are talking about two-round mayoral elections, "No Convicts in Public Offices," the compensatory appeal - there are 20,000 criminals released in the community, many of whom were convicted for violent crimes. We are talking about very sensitive environmental topics: cutting down forests; Rosia Montana, which must reach the UNESCO table again; NGOs that can become custodians of protected areas, because we are talking there about protection that is wholeheartedly undertaken. We are talking about reforms in the electoral laws and a much better representation in the Romanian Parliament of the diaspora, because today the diaspora has as many lawmakers as the smallest county in Romania, when in reality, metaphorically speaking, the diaspora is by far the largest county.
AGERPRES: Why should Romanians vote for you and not for another candidate?
Dan Barna: This is the first time that Romania will have a president from the private sector. So far, the four presidents that Romania has had since the Revolution are people from the public sector. There is essentially nothing wrong with that, just that Romania needs a development manager today. So far, we have had two teachers, a book publisher and a ship commander. Today, Romania has the opportunity - and this is what I think sets me apart significantly - to elect an entrepreneur, a man who has paid salaries, who fought with state institutions, ANAF, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of European Funds, to help beneficiaries, a man who understands all the torment that the Romanian state transfers to those who really produce added value in the Romanian economy, to the business operators, to those who manage the capital.
Today we need a development manager and a president to be active and present, because the president is the only person directly elected by the citizens, it is the only political institution that, having the vote of citizens behind, can and must bring to the public debate issues that interest people: theft of forests, schools where children learn things that do not help them in their professional lives, dirty hospitals, lack of projects to start the construction of motorways, which we have been talking about for 30 years. We are passing laws in Parliament, but thing do not happen in real life. These things must exist in the public debate and the president has the tools to put them on the table.
AGERPRES: What is the main objective of foreign policy that you would promote as President of Romania?
Dan Barna: Predictability. Because Romania, not being one of the big states on the planet, but not being a marginal republic either, has this currency that is very important in foreign policy: credibility and predictability. Those irresponsible statements about moving the embassy have thrown away a 70-year experience of relevance to Romania in the Middle East. Because Romania was one of the few countries in the world that had very good relations with Israel, and with the Arab states. After the inept statements of the former Prime Minister Dancila, not only have we lost all the credibility in the area, but also the very real possibility at that moment of gaining a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, because some of the countries that had to vote turned their back on us, and rightly so when we were so irresponsible. Things can only be improved when you are very predictable, consistent with the treaties you are a part of.
The pillars of Romania's foreign policy are, without a doubt: the relationship with the US, which is a privileged relationship from our point of view; EU membership - we said as far back as the elections to the European Parliament that we will send people to be proud of, people that won't make us feel ashamed, as we have for many years. And one of our MEPs, Dacian Ciolos, is the chair of Renew Europe, the third largest group in the EP. The other seven MEPs are all involved in the activities of the committees and in positions of leadership in the committees of the European Parliament. And their position and voice matter a lot.
We have not been represented before. We were only present at a table where decisions were made, which we did not influence in any way, because the people we sent there were mostly decorative.
The third direction is obviously being NATO members on the Eastern Flank of the alliance, a position that offers us very good opportunities, as far as we understand to be the member state from which the alliance expects stability. Because in the political context of Eastern Europe - currently there is a very self-centered Poland and Hungary; there is Turkey in the south that wants to rebuild the Ottoman Empire and has other types of objectives than this integration, in which I believe very much - Romania is in fact the partner from which stability, strength and direction are expected on the Eastern Flank. Now, just playing this card we can expect investment, those offsets where a part of the defence industry is developed in Romania, not just bought, using money from the national budget to finance companies from other states. In this context where the Alliance needs a stable and strong Romania, it is one of the strengths we can bring to the table to develop and use the resources of our defence industry, here in the country, instead of only buying equipment.
AGERPRES: You said that the NATO MEPs are more vocal, more present. Can you see a more active president in the European Council?
Dan Barna: Since its accession, Romania has been a presence, I would say, rather discreet in terms of European design, the scenarios developed by the European Commission, the Council and Parliament. However, you count for nothing in this European dialogue unless you pursue a strength of representation at every level, including the level of activity of the president in the Council. And I say this because, beyond our presence in Brussels, our position opens up some opportunities that we have not used. The Black Sea is becoming bit by bit a Russian lake. From this perspective, the window from Romania still gives a European prospect to this sea. Now, this is a card that we can play. We can be more relevant in the region, more present and consistent in everything that the Black Sea dialogue means. We can try to have a voice in the Western Balkans area. I believe very much that there, after all the efforts made in the region, Europe should have been fairer to this region. As far as Eastern Europe is concerned, it is expected to have a greater consistency than it has had so far, from my point of view.
AGERPRES: How do you imagine Romania at the end of your term, what do you want to change?
Dan Barna: It is a Romania that will have started to make projects, to digitise itself. Because it is one of the things that is so within our reach and yet we have refused to use it for years. Digitising ANAF, interconnecting databases between the Ministry of Finance-ANAF-Chamber of Commerce, all this would make life so easy for entrepreneurs as well in all their reporting, and for public institutions, which would no longer have those walls lined with libraries with tons of paperwork. This impression of 1900s functionaries ... These things can change and don't require much. Using digitisation you release a lot of creative resource, through which you can provide better services in public institutions. I see a Romania where digitisation becomes a reality, not just a fantasy that works in one place or another.
In the Iancului quarter, waiting numbers tickets were introduced at the Post Office a year and a half ago. We were very pleased. There was a lady who explained to the elderly how it works. It was a step towards civilisation that saved people from clumping up at each counter, as it happens. After two weeks the screens and the ticket dispenser were gone. I asked them what happened. "People didn't get used to them." It's outrageous if that was the reason - probably some people started up a ruckus and suddenly they gave up on an investment and a service that brought civilisation to a process.
Another direction that I see after five years of Dan Barna's tenure is a Romania which starts to build its motorways. Because for 30 years we have been talking about motorways. We have come to - how ridiculous! - approve laws in Parliament so that there are motorways. The Moldavian Motorway was voted on a year plus ago in the Romanian Parliament. Everyone applauded. USR also voted. But the fact that you approve a motorway in Parliament does not mean anything if the respective works do not exist. Similarly [it will be] a Romania where the railway infrastructure works and we can rely on it, because it remains a very good alternative, precisely because of the road traffic problems, and also because of the cost and the comfort for the passengers.
Also, a Romania where teachers are as well paid as judges or doctors, because education can only be improved if we invest in its quality. It is a good thing that investment has been carried out in access and participation. Student transportation, hot meals - these things that, in the disadvantaged areas, bring the children to school, are natural, necessary things. But if you talk about performance and how to reduce the number of functionally illiterate children, who read a text and do not understand what it is about - this can only happen if you have better teachers, better paid. Today, unfortunately, the low wages and disrespect to the teaching profession have made the system being populated with people who actually cannot succeed in other areas. There are those vocational, wonderful, inspirational teachers who have students who win robotics, computer science or English Olympiads, but the elites will always exist, in every generation. No matter how good or bad a state works, there will always be elites - it is a law of nature. But the stakes are to make sure that the average is sufficient, so that those children can be adults with a role in the labour market, a role that matters. This happens if one invests in the quality of education. It also means life-long training procedures, because there are also instances in which teachers are of good quality but using methods from 15-30 years ago makes the final product a mediocre one. The fact that we have high schools in which years in a row there is not even one baccalaureate graduate shows exactly this, that the way education works today in Romania is very much outdated.
AGERPRES: President-player or president-mediator?
Dan Barna: An active and present president. I believe that Romania needs a president who does not step in only in crisis situations. This is within reach and, somewhat natural: for the president to step in and take a stand in a peak crisis. But Romania needs at present - and that's why I was talking about a development manager president - a president who will be present in the dramas and successes and, perhaps, sometimes, the tragedies that society faces. Because Romanians - probably not only them, but Romanians in particular - are a mimetic nation. They follow the example. In fact, this is how communities have always worked. And if the president of the country gives an example of presence, being active in the issues relevant to the citizens, people also understand that things can change. Romania needs a president to provide a vision and a personal example. I have met many Romanians from the diaspora, in the last few weeks, who told me that they left the country, not because of the minimum wage, but because they no longer believed that Romania was going in a direction. And they had that feeling that we live from day to day. Some of them were saying that they no longer trusted that Romania is the country where they would like to raise their children. And this is very painful information.
Talking to people in the US about what the country should do for them to come back, their message was very simple: "Show us we are wanted!". Because there and also in Germany and Spain, I met Romanians who returned to the country - gaining professional experience in the countries where they worked - and opened their companies here. They came back with an open heart, that they come to contribute, to do something in their country and they woke up after 2-3 weeks that either mayors or officials from various institutions came, asked them for a payoff or told them, "Come and make my fence and gates, since you opened a wrought iron company!". So people said, "I packed up and left, because I understood that I am not, in fact, wanted and the state continues to chase me and will do so all the time. Because, if I caved in to that request, that would have been my whole life."
That's what this is about when I say we can change, I believe that's what this is about with these presidential elections, at the first round, because a runoff without PSD [the Social Democratic Party] gives exactly that message: that we can change. The fact that we had a party that for 30 years - and in three and a half years, now, in particular - completely ignored the interest of the community and we continue to bring it into the political spectrum, to support it, is one of the elements that chases young people from the country. The fact that we had people like Dragnea or Valcov, convicted for stealing public money, who continued to claim that they were entitled to rule Romania, is the worst message we can give to a young generation. Because they see: "Either you take up stealing, or you leave the country." It is exactly against this message that I am fighting and I am running for the presidency of Romania, to convey the message that we can be happy in Romania, too, that we can build our future here in the country.
AGERPRES: Your political programme for the presidential elections proposes a constitutional reform, which would aim at increased powers for the president. In Romania, after the Revolution, there have been reservations regarding the concentration of political power in the hands of one person. Do you think there is a risk in this regard?
Dan Barna: On Monday, the Orban Government, proposed by President Iohannis, was invested. But President Iohannis equally proposed Grindeanu, Tudose, and Viorica Dancila. Afterwards he had no levers for the political crisis we entered, he had no constitutional levers to step in. That is why I consider that a constitutional reform, through which the president really becomes an arbiter in situations of political crisis, is fundamentally necessary. Imagine how easy it would have been, after the censure motion against Mrs Dancila had passed, for the president to check whether there was a majority - and there was not, it was very thin at the time and very heterogeneous - to propose a new prime minister or to call for early elections. Both the president, and the prime minister, and everybody agrees that the correct solution today, for Romania, would have been early elections, only they are very difficult to organize based on the current Constitution. If the president had had this possibility, to have early elections today, we would have earnestly come out of the crisis. This can be done if we change the Constitution and very clearly say: in crisis situations, unless there is another clear majority, the president can dissolve Parliament and call early elections.
Likewise, if Parliament decides to suspend the president, if the referendum is not confirmed by the citizens, Parliament will automatically dissolve. Because, otherwise, we remain and have remained quite a few times in these frozen political crises that are very interesting for politicians, but for the citizens they do not bring any benefit. We have permanent conflict between state powers.
AGERPRES: So you don't fear a possible concentration of power?
Dan Barna: Not by a long shot. We are not talking of a concentration, but a mechanism through which the President can be a arbiter, when it is necessary that he be an arbiter. In equal measure, I see it necessary that "No convicts in public office" become the letter of the Constitution. To have the election of mayors and county council presidents in two rounds written in the Constitution, in order to not have any more circumstantial majorities, that keep changing the law: "Let's go with one round!", "Let's go with two!".
Furthermore, I think it's very important that the President have a role in the construction of the budget. Because when we talk about the state's development, in reality, we are talking about how we allot Romania's money for our development. The President being voted directly by the citizens and assuming some objectives - like 6 pct of the GDP for education - when he has this constitutional lever, to be present at the budget's drawing up, he can fulfill those objectives. Otherwise, he can send the budget back to Parliament once - which solves nothing, it only delays a process. But I believe that the President should have a role in drawing up the budget from the very beginning.
AGERPRES: Do you believe you stand a chance to put in the Constitution the election of mayors in two rounds, given that the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Hungarian Democratic Union of Romania (UDMR) are against it?
Dan Barna: It's very clear that we must speak of a constituent majority, so a large majority in Romania's Parliament. This majority can be achieved only through elections. At this time - no, with the current Parliament, in which Prime Minister Orban will have, without a doubt, big problems in imposing his agenda, the stake is for the elections to come. That is why we request there be early elections, because otherwise, if we have a government for a year, the PSD will constantly attack, will discredit and will erode this PNL [National Liberal Party] government and we will have a new sequence in which we discuss alternatives with PSD in government or not. Which means wasting the three-and-a-half year long effort of the Romanian citizens who struggled to bring us in the position of being able to get rid of the PSD.
AGERPRES: In your programme there are a series of objectives listed, such as eliminating school inspectorates or abolishing the tax on the minimum wage. What levers do you have for such objectives?
Dan Barna: The levers are the force of this message and of the public positions that the President can put on the public agenda. It's obvious that the USR PLUS Alliance was born of people who have had enough of staying on the side. We understood that if we don't get involved politically, things will not change in Romania in any way. If honest and competent people don't get involved politically, there is no solution to improve the state. The strategy that we proposed was in four steps: the European Parliament elections - and we obtained a great result; the presidential elections - I have the objective of reaching the second round, and from there become President of Romania; the local elections - where I'm convinced we will have hundreds, probably thousands, of local councilors, of mayors at the level of the country; the parliamentary elections - through which we can form the Government. And it's a very important stake how these elections will look like. Because we will have the USR PLUS Alliance supported by the PNL or the PNL supported by the USR PLUS Alliance - it's the perspective of this predictable collaboration, that I hope is sufficiently consistent to generate the majority through which we can carry out the constitutional reform.
And the levers are exactly those of collaborating with a Government that results from elections, that's why we're speaking of early elections. Because in the current majority, with Ponta, with Tariceanu, with all the other parts of the PSD stranded in various other parties, it's obvious it's not predictable that governing will be possible in any way.
AGERPRES: You said you don't believe a recent poll that places you on the fourth place in the options of the electorate. What arguments do you have?
Dan Barna; I've been on the street for two and a half months, amongst citizens, just like with the European Parliament elections, the pulse and perception of the streets' reaction are very clearly directed towards a necessary change, an expectation that youths come and get involved in the political life of Romania. From this perspective, candidate Diaconu does not appear in discussions with citizens. Only a few people speak of Mircea Diaconu. But,anyway, every poll has its own methodology. There are not many things to comment. Yet I am convinced that in these five days we have ahead of us we will succeed in generating the degree of involvement and mobilization for the vote, so that I make it to the runoff and we truly have a debate about Romania.
I have invited constantly, every day, both President Iohannis and former Prime Minister Dancila, to an open debate about Romania. It's a thing that Romanians expect, a natural and necessary thing. I am ready to participate in any debate, with anyone, in any structure, with any other candidates, which would be attended by President Iohannis or Prime Minister Dancila, in order to discuss amongst the candidates with true chances about how the Romania of the next five years will look like.
AGERPRES: A critique brought to this campaign was the lack of debates. Why do you condition these debates to the presence of Klaus Iohannis or Viorica Dancila?
Dan Barna: Because I believe a debate between the candidates from among whom the President of Romania will be elected is necessary. Otherwise, if we organize debates just for the sake of dialogue, they bring, in reality, nothing for the citizens and for the real perspective of electoral option that these people will express.
AGERPRES: Following the investigation regarding the social economy structures developed by you, you mentioned that there were checks regarding those projects and that nothing untoward was noted.
Dan Barna: Because there was nothing untoward.
AGERPRES: Are there any aspects of those projects that you reproach yourself for? Were you contacted by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA)?
Dan Barna; I was very open from the very beginning, when the journalists at RISE started to research various subjects that regard me. I was very open and transparent with them, we had a dialogue for more than an hour in which I answered all the questions and preoccupations that they raised. I was not contacted in any way by the DNA, at no point, because it never went forward after the phase of checks, which confirmed no problems. I knew this, because we worked very hard so that line of social economy function. We had a very big correspondence with the authorities, signaling various problems and ways to approach them which were not necessarily in favor of the good conduct of the programme. In reality, the two projects addressed there contained not only four, but 15 structures of social economy. The rest, being functional, were not exemplified by the journalists. It's their option, the way in which they built the material, they only chose the four that stopped functioning. But it's important to say this: they functioned in the implementation period of the project, they also functioned in the sustainability period. After that, lacking orders, they ceased activity. The vulnerable persons in those projects got support, they had support salaries during the entire project and the sustainability period. After that, not being able to withstand the market, the mentioned structures ceased their activity. And those were 4 of 15. I mean, the reality is far more complex.
There were supporters who told me: "Maybe you made a mistake. If you made a mistake, it's normal to admit it, because only those who don't work don't make mistakes." I told them very openly; "I am ready to admit a mistake, if I identify it and know what I should have done differently." I did exactly what the requester's guide asked for. The projects were assessed - as regards that presumption of conflict of interests, the one related to a family member - the projects were not assessed by me. They were evaluated by the ministry, presenting the project's team from the very beginning. There was no moment where I chose someone over someone else, so that the issue of conflict of interests could be present.
I didn't find things to regret. If there were, I'd admit without a problem that I was wrong. I don't pretend to be perfect. The former company gave a detailed response to that investigation, because there's nothing to be ashamed of in the activity that we had.
AGERPRES: What is the stage of the procedure to validate Nicusor Dan as the USR candidate for local elections? Which will be the mechanism for establishing the joint USR PLUS candidates? Do you see any potential agreements with PNL, should the elections take place in a single round?
Dan Barna: In USR we have this sound principle of the autonomy of the branches as regards local policy decisions, strategic decisions. There will definitely not be an alliance with PNL at national level, but at local level, if we are talking about a PSD mayor and our colleagues decide to support a single candidate of the opposition, such local agreements could be made.
After the presidential election we'll have a meeting of the political committee and we'll decide within the party on the ways to support the independent candidates. Me and my colleagues as well have invited Nicusor Dan to return to the USR and if this had been the case there would have been no problem for him to run for joint candidate of the Alliance. The PLUS Party already has a candidate, Vlad Voiculescu. Nicusor Dan has turned down the proposal to return to the USR. In this situation, according to our statutes and internal regulations, we will convene the political committee to determine how to support the independents. We have this political alliance agreement, we also have the poll, and the primaries where several citizens, not just party members vote, precisely for us to reach the goal that I have been constantly stating, that of finding the candidate with the broadest popular support to run against Gabriela Firea. I will throw all my energy behind any candidate - whether we are talking about Nicusor Dan, or about Vlad Voiculescu, or another colleague - it's whoever earns the broadest popular support.
AGERPRES: Do you want to add something to your statements so far?
Dan Barna: We are at a moment when - 30 years after the [December 1989] Revolution and Ion Iliescu's 85 percent election win that seems so unbelievable today - there is finally a great chance for Romania to have a runoff without the PSD, when we can talk about how we modernize this country, how to transform Romania into a country the youth would no longer want to leave, and those who left to start considering returning to, if they want to do so. Put simply this means: Dan Barna in the second round, a real debate about Romania between Dan Barna and Klaus Iohannis. It means the chance of choosing between two visions of a real Romania and of no longer having the option for a party that has held Romania off for so long. And the perspective of Viorica Dancila in the second round is the perspective of a Romanian that refuses to learn from mistakes. AGERPRES (RO - author: Irinela Visan, editor: Mirela Barbulescu; EN - authors: Corneliu-Aurelian Colceriu, Simona Iacob, Razvan-Adrian Pandea, Simona Klodnischi, editors: Simona Iacob, Rodica State, Maria Voican)
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