Vlad Gheorghe says he never wants to forget where he came from, nor the reasons why he became a politician in the first place. “Growing up in Romania during the final years of the Communist regime and living through the country’s democratic transition has made my generation so much more civically and politically conscious,” says Gheorghe, adding, “we are the ones that most wanted EU and NATO membership because of what they stand for: the rule of law, solidarity and safety.”
The 36-year-old Renew Europe deputy explains why he strives to not lose sight of what’s truly important to him and to not lose his humanity. “I was born in a country that was cut off from democracy and from the rest of Europe for almost half a century. We needed to feel our true selves again as Europeans, with all that that entails. But Communism left many scars and unfortunately many, shall we say, ‘old school politicians in Romania didn’t act in the country’s best interests and behaved too much like those we knew before December 1989. That is why I chose to become an attorney, to be active in civil society and to go into politics. I want to make sure that my children grow up in a country that is undoubtedly European, truly democratic and prosperous. It’s that simple.”
“Populism is easy, it comes in handy, it often makes sense to those who feel unrepresented, people struggling to make a decent living or lacking the time, education and willingness to analyse issues beyond the headlines”
Well-known for fighting corruption and defending human rights in Romania, does he see any parallels with his own experiences and the current rule of law clashes going on between Poland and Hungary and the EU? “Power is obviously very appealing and unsurprisingly, there are some that can’t resist the temptation to gain more and more,” he says. All illiberal regimes, he suggests, “no matter the country, party or leader” have at their core a fixation on increasing personalised power that can all too easily sweep aside democratic values and the rule of law.
“My experience is similar to anyone else who has lived through an autocratic regime and it is perhaps easier for me and my colleagues in the anti-corruption and pro-European USR PLUS alliance to spot such characters or parties. Once the rule of law is broken, it can only get worse. This is why I support the Rule of Law Conditionality Mechanism. I cannot stress enough that we need to stand firmly against all breaches”.
The recent departure of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party from the European Parliament’s EPP Group was viewed by many as long overdue. But was it a case of too little too late? Can mainstream politics stem Europe’s populist tide? “In real life, if you choose to ignore a problem, it usually doesn’t go away. it’s the same for politics. However the risks can be much higher. Brexit is the perfect example of this.”
It saw mainstream politicians repeatedly dismissing uncomfortable voices or topics, underestimating the power of simple messages repeated firmly over and over again. It’s a familiar stor; “I know it’s a cliché, but history does repeat itself unless you do something to prevent it. Populism is easy, it comes in handy, it often makes sense to those who feel unrepresented, people struggling to make a decent living or lacking the time, education and willingness to analyse issues beyond the headlines. All over Europe, growing numbers of people feel they are being cheated by the political classes or by the so-called “system”.
Gheorghe points to last year’s elections in Romania, which saw - for the first time in almost two decades - a right-wing party enter the country’s Parliament. “Why was this? Put simply, corruption; people see little political will to eliminate corruption from public office and our institutions and so they end up voting for those who tell them what they want to hear. That’s why the Rule of Law Conditionality Mechanism and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office are key to a strong Europe. Firm and timely measures against populists are the way to regain citizens’ trust - the time for speeches and conferences is long overdue.”
Gheorghe would also like to see more action and less verbal evasion from EU leaders towards Europe’s eastern neighbours, such as Belarus and particularly with Russia, over the crackdown on protestors, imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and recent expulsion of EU diplomats. “It is very difficult, if not impossible, for most EU citizens to understand the courage and self-sacrifice of those protesting in Belarus and Russia. It’s no secret that I consider the EU’s approach to be far too ‘diplomatic’. We all witnessed Josep Borrell’s controversial visit to Moscow. Together with my colleagues in the Parliament’s USR PLUS delegation and a large number of MEPs from different groups and countries, we demanded stronger penalties against those responsible. We cannot fight against abuse and repeated human rights violations with official visits and diplomatic statements.”
Both from a diplomatic and strategic approach, Gheorghe believes the EU should be much more visible with the countries on its eastern borders. “On 13 January, Member States, including Romania, urged the European Commission to support the Eastern Partnership countries in their efforts to obtain affordable and fair access to COVID-19 vaccines. This should have been a priority for the EU from the beginning of the pandemic - primarily out of solidarity, but also as a strategic move to limit Russian and Chinese influence in the region. The COVAX initiative is doing this now, but there’s always room for improvement.”
Europe’s transport and tourism sectors have taken some of the hardest hits during the pandemic, and Gheorghe unsurprisingly is a fan of Digital Green Certificates or ‘vaccine passports’, as they are more commonly called. “As a substitute in Parliament’s Transport and Tourism (TRAN) Committee, I called for such a common document - I would not call it a passport - to be in use deployed as soon as possible. A common infrastructure, a uniform policy and a singular document are key to a simple and safe way of travelling in Europe while the Coronavirus is still present. Some say the proposal is discriminatory, but that’s absolutely false. If for any reason you cannot fulfil any of the three requirements - vaccination, testing or proof of previous infection - you can still travel, but must abide by the COVID-19 prevention rules in place in the relevant Member State.”
“Exploiting forests is a very profitable business - with minimum investment and high returns - and this is what makes it hard to stop illegal logging, especially in the EU’s poorer Member States”
The main challenge regarding implementation of the EU’s Digital Green Certificates scheme is, he argues, getting the necessary technology in place in time for the summer and to properly communicate the scheme across Europe. “I see no reasons to further penalise transport and tourism operators - and ultimately all European citizens - with travel bans, while such a scheme could guarantee safe mobility within the EU.”
Sticking with COVID-19, there is growing evidence and widespread concern that the crisis has significantly impacted the treatment of cancer patients, particularly as regards late diagnosis and treatment delays. Gheorghe admits, “Unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed numerous shortcomings in national health systems and has further weakened both medical staffing levels and health budgets. However, we have all become more aware of the urgent need for a stronger EU4Health with common procedures, common procurement, and similar protocols.”
A recent report presented in the Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA), he says, highlighted yet again the problem of unequal access in Member States to care for cancer patients. “Romania, for example, has the highest number of cancer cases and subsequent deaths for breast cancer. Yet this is a type of cancer with a high probability of survival and quality of life when properly detected and treated. How do we overcome this? We need proper investment in medical education, screening and prevention and the elimination of corruption in medical procurement and management.”
Earlier this month, the UN International Day of Forests passed by largely unnoticed, despite evidence suggesting that illegal logging has increased by up to 150 percent in some areas during the Coronavirus lockdowns. For Gheorghe, protecting Europe’s forests is personal. “Exploiting forests is a very profitable business - with minimum investment and high returns - and this is what makes it hard to stop illegal logging, especially in the EU’s poorer Member States.” In Romania, he explains, the regions where illegal logging has sky-rocketed over the past 30 years are primarily those with the lowest incomes.
“In the short term, we need tougher sanctions and laws and the political will to enforce them. I recently advocated for the inclusion of environmental offences as a new category, exempted from the ‘double criminality’ check in the European Arrest Warrant. We also need investment in infrastructure and sustainable tourism, in order to offer a better medium and long-term alternative for local communities. And finally, we need to continue the fight against corruption at all levels. And I can’t stress enough the importance of environmental education and active citizenship. Soon, together with my team, I’ll propose a Pilot Project targeting illegal logging, so stay tuned for more details.”
Gheorghe recently submitted a question to the Commission on CO2 emission limits for idle cars. He argues that as road transport contributes around 20 percent of Greenhouse Gas emissions in the EU, it make sense to address the pollution at its source. “Working on transport aspects of the Ambient Air Quality report - voted on during the recent mini-plenary in Brussels - I suggested dedicating EU financial and operational efforts to the monitoring of air pollution, urban design and the technical inspections of vehicles. If we want a more sustainable road sector, then we need to make it more ‘European’. Looking at the examples of Member States, I realise that there are big differences in implementation capabilities. We need the EU to apply a country-specific approach to delivering the common goal of CO2 reduction.”
“It is very difficult, if not impossible, for most EU citizens to understand the courage and self-sacrifice of those protesting in Belarus and Russia. It’s no secret that I consider the EU’s approach to be much too ‘diplomatic’”
He argues that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach will compromise the EU’s environmental objectives. And he believes that it’s not just a case of ensuring industry commitment; increasingly, it’s road users that are key to greening the transport sector. “It’s exactly for this reason that I called for an EU legislative initiative on idling limits. Keeping the engine on while a car is not moving has a considerable CO2 impact, particularly in urban areas. There is definitely a need for the European Union to act on this and bring drivers on board in the common battle for clean transport.
On the subject of transport users, what more does he think European Union policymakers can do to help make transport more accessible, more safe and more affordable? “There is no doubt that financial capacities influence the choice of transport mode, but they should never become a determinant of safety. Nevertheless, the owners of more expensive and technologically-advanced cars enjoy greater security on Europe’s roads. I have repeatedly called for action to curb odometer fraud in second-hand cars; this crime is not only a danger to human lives, but also compromises our environmental goals."
"Therefore, I was particularly pleased when the European Commission reacted by suggesting a new legislative initiative on odometers planned for 2023.” He is also campaigning to make public transport more affordable and accessible. “In Romania, a third of the roads are dirt or cobbled, which makes them difficult for public buses to use. The situation is similar in neighbouring countries, so I believe improving the road network should be a main priority for EU cohesion policy. Equal access to transport means equal access to public services and goods. In my view, it is a matter of social justice.”