European Campaign Trail: A View from Southeastern Romania
When thinking about election campaigns for the European Parliament, one might expect big rallies, with candidates addressing large audiences on major topics such as immigration, Brexit, or transatlantic relations. But reality throws up a different picture.
Rather, you encounter more direct interactions with the voters, participation in events of the local community, and topics pertaining to regional development projects, EU funds, work opportunities, and other aspects that have a first-hand impact on the life of the locals.
Traveling to the southeastern Romanian city of Buzau, I shadowed over two days Andi Cristea, a candidate ranked 10th on the list of the Social Democratic Party running for a second term in the European Parliament. In his first term, he held the positions of vice chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and chair of the delegation to the EU-Moldova Parliamentary Association Committee. His schedule was packed with events in the city and in the surrounding region. The campaigning is done in partnership with the local party team and involves associating the candidate with well-known local figures such as mayors or the president of the County Council.
"Themes such as the foreign policy of the EU are less likely to be on voters’ mind, and the transatlantic relationship is close to an unknown concept."
The first stop was Patarlagele, a small town about an hour’s drive from Buzau. There Cristea was welcome by the mayor and vice mayor with traditional Romanian hospitality—an open-hearted attitude toward guests and making them feel at home. In smaller towns and villages like Patarlagele campaigning must be calibrated to local realities. Themes such as the foreign policy of the EU are less likely to be on voters’ mind, and the transatlantic relationship is close to an unknown concept. The most pressing issues for citizens are usually the development of the local community, accessing EU funds, salaries, pensions, and opportunities for the younger generation. Most of the middle-aged and older people the candidate interacted with highlighted the importance of ensuring a good future for the youth.
The mayor led Cristea to the local Saturday market to meet voters. The aim of bringing the mayor and the candidate together face to face with people is to foster closeness and creates a bond with the voters. Leaflets with 2019 calendars and the photo of the mayor alongside Cristea is another way to convey to the people the “Together for Europe” slogan. People holding the mayor in high regard for his public service and projects undertaken for the local community also see in the candidate he campaigns with someone who will act on their behalf and contribute to these projects at the EU level.
The members of the public seemed to warmly welcome Cristea, who introduced himself as a native of nearby Buzau and the only member of the European Parliament from the county—and therefore as being in a unique position to advance their interests. In the discussions, he outlined what his party has achieved in the past years in terms of higher salaries and pensions, and he faced a few questions regarding local development projects and EU funding available. His approach in interacting with voters was low-key, in essence, built around the simple message: “If you trust our team, we would be happy to count on your support.”
Overall, the local people’s expectations from politicians are down to earth and center around investing in the development of the local community, creating opportunities for young people, and being listened to by the people in office. The quiet life in the countryside, the slow routine, and the daily concerns of the people are far away from the complex and turmoiled policy environment in Brussels.
The next stop on the campaign trail took us close to a nearby village where a local festival with folkloric Romanian songs and dances was taking place in a landscape dominated by majestic hills. A walk by Cristea through the fair with the president of the County Council followed the same pattern as the earlier market visit in Patarlagele. Then came lunch with mayors from the county, deputies, and advisors so that the candidate could present himself and discuss campaign activities to be held in their respective towns and villages.
Coming back to Buzau in the evening, Cristea’s campaigning took him to a handball game between the local women’s team and last year’s national champions. The atmosphere was electrifying with over 1,000 people cheering for their favorites. The presence of the candidate in the middle of the supporters gave a strong impression of belonging and support for the very important element for the local community that is sport.
The second day started with a visit to the local bazaar, where you can find anything from second-hand cars to electronic equipment and clothing items. The mayor of Buzau led Cristea through the busy crowd. Again, topics such as the functioning of the EU or the role of the European Parliament were far from people’s minds. The focus was on local projects, such as road repairs, and work opportunities, with a few people voicing some discontent. The mayor and the candidate engaged in discussions, pointing out what has been and what is being done locally to solve the issues.
One of the challenges faced by candidates like Cristea in provincial towns like Buzau is how to handle citizens’ expectation that they have the answers in a wide range of areas such as salaries and pensions, the price of goods in Romania compared to in other countries, dealing with the government bureaucracy, and fiscal issues. He promised to bring these up with people from the party who are experts on these topics and to follow up with the respective citizens. The follow up will have to be done rapidly so as to show the candidate’s commitment and eagerness to solving citizens’ problems.
After two days on the campaign trail with Andi Cristea in southeastern Romania, it might be surprising how low citizens’ knowledge and understanding of the EU are, and how extremely far the policy debates in Brussels seem. Citizens are also interested in different topics than those normally discussed in Brussels. Yet, at the same time, the average person’s sense of belonging to Europe and understanding of the benefits and opportunities this brings are very clear. There is also a keen desire on their part for their representatives to focus on policies and initiatives that create better and more opportunities for young people.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.