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Monday, 23 May 2016

Social policy in a Romanian technocratic government: What can change in a year?

Mariela Neagu (DPhil, REES Centre for Research in Fostering and Education, University of Oxford)

In week 4, SEESOX and the Oxford University Romanian Society hosted Valeriu Nicolae, Secretary of State for Social Affairs in Romania’s technocratic government. He gave a frank account of the challenges faced by the government appointed after the ‘Collectiv’ street protest against political establishment. Given the very limited margin for manoeuvre, in the absence of parliamentary support and with a very short mandate, it did not hesitate to do a lot more than simply organising local and general elections. With a Prime Minister and a few cabinet members who came into the government straight from the European Commission’s offices in Brussels, it is little surprise that they began to tackle corruption by changing guidelines for European Union funds to prevent future schemes become incentives for corruption. It is noteworthy that some past EU programmes allowed for 60% of the budget to be spent on hotels and catering costs!

At the same time, it is quite something for people such as Nicolae, with a strong civil society background to cross the line and obtain insider access to the structure and practices of a public administration that has traditionally been riddled by nepotism and unorthodox practices. As Discussant, Jonathan Scheele wondered how far a technocratic government can ever entrench change so that whatever can be achieved during a short and limited mandate is in any way sustainable. 

The message delivered by the speaker was not one of impotence, but rather of a pragmatic approach within the given constraints. Asked why Romania was slower in its progress than the rest of the Eastern bloc, he disagreed that was the case. Perhaps the improvements in the functioning of the justice system, which only took gained traction post 2007, as we heard in a previous seminar, did not make sufficient impact in the Western media? Or the fact that someone with no political back-up could become the Prime Minister? But, with or without headlines, Romania maintains its exceptional character, a country with laws not applied and where the culture leading to effective law enforcement has still to take root. On the positive side, the fact that the new anti-poverty strategy mentions human dignity as the nexus between social benefits and the human rights is in itself a novelty for document produced by the Government of Romania.

An outspoken human and Roma rights activist, as well as a columnist in the Romanian weekly ‘Dilema Veche’, Valeriu Nicolae attracted a large audience of Romanian students in Oxford. They left with a better understanding of what goes on in government, after an honest lecture on governance, which they much appreciated. The broad picture of obstacles and challenges did not spare civil society: ‘we do not have a clean civil society’, said Nicolae, a statement that few politicians would be likely to make. 

Romania will have elections in November. Whether the country will continue to be led by meritocracy or will return to old party habits is remains to be seen.

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