Victor Negrescu: Critics have forgotten what it's like to live outside EU
Victor Negrescu on relating to Europe's millennials, why EU membership was a dream come true for Romania and why he believes a 'two-speed Europe' is a stupid idea.
Victor Negrescu | Photo credit: Natalie Hill
Speaking to friends and acquaintances outside the Brussels bubble, it's clear that very few young people - 'millennials', as demographers like to call us - are not particularly interested in politics. And those that are, appear to have a fundamental distrust in politicians, and are generally disenchanted with the current political system. Romanian MEP Victor Negrescu gets this.
"Young people expect politicians to fight for something, but we stopped fighting. Everyone says the same things, uses the same words and phrases and seem to have forgotten to tell young people that we are involved in politics with an objective in mind."
He adds, "We should speak to young people all the time - not just during elections. This is the biggest mistake that political parties make - they only refer to young people when they want their votes. Young people are not a commodity to buy or sell at every election. They have values, they have ideas, they want to get involved and they are impatient - they expect us to deliver."
Negrescu is not your usual grey-haired career politician pretending to be 'down with the kids'. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2014 at the tender age of 28, although he admits that many people at the time had no idea how old, or young, he was, because he had already been involved in Romanian politics for several years.
"The biggest reaction," he says, "came from the European Parliament's staff, because they weren't used to seeing a young face trying to take the lead on important topics. It took a while for me to prove that it's not just about age, it's also about competence, and showing that I was capable of doing good work."
The S&D group member is one of 96 MEPs under 40, and believes that if you want to encourage more political participation, then you need to share personal views and experiences about why you got involved in policymaking in the first place.
For Negrescu, the divine inspiration came after one of his family members fell ill, but no hospital in Romania could afford to perform the necessary lifesaving treatment.
"Going from hospital to hospital, talking with doctor after doctor, I realised that lives aren't so important to governments, because in the end it's about funds and policies. I believe the role of states and governments should be to think about every individual, and if we can save the life of one person through our policies, then we should do our best to implement that policy."
A fan of gadgets and new technologies - "If you ask me about something new, I probably know about it" - Negrescu is very active on social media, having amassed over 29,000 likes on Facebook.
He believes that social media "encourages participation and can help people express their views. It has improved the way politicians communicate with people, and for us young politicians, it is the best tool to interact with people."
Negrescu is a loud and proud EU enthusiast, and he was delighted when Romania last month celebrated a decade of EU membership.
"It was a dream come true for Romania. I truly believe it's not about the government, it's about the people. People sometimes mention Hungary and Poland's eurosceptisism but I truly believe that eastern Europeans are true pro-Europeans and we are still driven by this dream of having a united Europe.
"To us, it means a lot. It means democracy, common values, wellbeing and development. Those criticising the EU do not know, or have forgotten, what it's like to live outside the EU. We still remember what it was like for us when we weren't in this great family."
Nevertheless, he does understand how euroscepticism has managed to spread across the continent and concedes that "some mistakes have been made."
He explains, "We blame populism, but behind populism, we have people, and most of them, I have to say, are politicians. Every time they make a mistake, they blame the EU for what they did - economic policies or migration issues, for example - they try to defend their mistakes by blaming the EU."
Another problem, says Negrescu, is that "the EU is not an abstract body. It is an institution that needs to be understood and more widely-known. We need to improve the transparency of EU decision-making processes, so that people are better engaged and participate more.
"Therefore, I support the idea of having a broader political debate and having a candidate for European Commission President - that was a great first step. But I would like the next president to actually run directly for the post - more political debate would help the image of the EU across member states."
A key manifestation of Europe's growing euroscepticism is, of course, Brexit. In the wake of the UK's decision to leave the Union, EU policymakers have been scrambling to find new ways to reshape Europe.
One idea being floated is that of a 'two-speed Europe', something Negrescu thinks is "a very stupid idea."
"We don't have two Europes. We only have one. We cannot have one Europe for eurozone members and one Europe for the others. Some want to introduce special voting rights for eurozone MEPs, reducing others to the status of second-rate MEPs. This nonsense should stop. The only solution is to find the right path for all of Europe, in order to have a strong Europe."
In terms of his own policy work, Negrescu has spent a lot of time working on youth unemployment, a crisis which has plagued Europe for years and which policymakers still struggle to alleviate.
He believes that, "The biggest problem regarding policies for young people is that decision makers at European level - and even national level - don't understand the diversity of young people. You cannot create a general project.
"You cannot expect all young people to become young entrepreneurs. I would love to see them become entrepreneurs - I was one myself before I became an MEP - but not everyone can do it, not everyone has the same opportunities.
"We have to think about those who don't have access to education and jobs and come up with policies for them, and lead them towards new opportunities at local level.
"Likewise," he continues, "we should come up with different policies for those young people who are dynamic and willing. I think the best solution is to be very local, very present and to listen to young people."
It was impossible to sit down with Negrescu without pressing him on the controversy surrounding the Romanian government - a coalition led by the Partidul Social Democrat, of which he is a member - and its proposed changes to the country's corruption laws.
These were scrapped following days of protests and accusations that the government was looking to water down anti-corruption rules to the benefit of imprisoned party members.
Negrescu says, "I think the protests have shown that Romania is a consolidated democracy. People are free to speak their mind. Let me give a personal example. About 10 years ago, I organised a flashmob, and I was immediately fined - up to €200, which is basically the average salary in Romania.
"People no longer get fined for protesting, and this is a big change, a big achievement for Romania's democracy. Therefore, the protest is normal, people need to express themselves."
He acknowledges that recent events have shaken the country's leaders, but notes that the protests "pushed the government to send the discussions to the Romanian Parliament, and I think the best place to discuss such changes is in the Parliament, with a broad debate, involving all stakeholders."
He adds that the issue is also set to involve the European Parliament and European Commission, "because the true debate is not about an amendment, it's about the rule of law and the balance of powers in the Romanian democratic regime. We have some problems, we are still a young democracy, and the balance of powers needs to be better defined in our laws."
If Europe is serious about fighting terrorism and extremism, the institutions of the EU need to be more actively engaged in the current situation involving Qatar, argues Richard Burchill.
The European Commission's Pillar of Social Rights initiative must include proposals to counter the negative impact EU economic governance rules, says Eduardo Chagas.
Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović’s western charm offensive is crumbling at his feet, argues Andrey Petrushinin.