Sinaia. Mountain resort and seat of the Romanian royal palace. In a packed conference hall of the lush 1912 casino, a cheering crowd watches dazzled in the dark as a giant screen flashes a countdown from ten to zero. A soundtrack of classical strings and electric guitars blasts out. The besuited crowd stands and claps in a staging resembling a product launch for a new home appliance.
- Nemesis of the European Union establishment, Le Pen is against NATO, against the EU and against the International Monetary Fund — the three international institutions arguably critical in securing Romania’s stability over the last 15 years.
- In 2013, Marine Le Pen’s father Jean Marie, the former leader of the National Front, was fined 5,000 Euro by a Paris Court for implying Romanians were “naturally” inclined to steal.
Geert Wilders, the firebrand president of the anti-EU Dutch Freedom Party, suggested in 2009 that Romania and Bulgaria should be chucked out of the EU, but his party’s representative at this conference, Markus De Graaff states: “We would love to do trade with Romania and let our economies grow together — for Bucharest [to be] a beautiful and prosperous city — as the Paris of the East again.”
This receives cheers from the locals.
The movement is selling a vision where countries can freely trade with one another inside Europe, but each can decide its own economic path. The ideal is that independence means cash.
De Graaff adds: “We want to be in charge of our own country again — more freedom and prosperity — our Europe — a Europe of nations.”
His final words to the audience are in Romanian. They are taken from the national anthem.
“Viața-n libertate ori moarte!”
Life in liberty or death!
Message to the east: the EU is the USSR
Le Pen wants European nations to “take the destiny in their own hands and have a collaboration between Europeans”. She calls the European Union an “excellent failure that destroys hope and development”, and that its elite believes «treaties are more important than people».
- Romania has over two million people working in the EU, is now seeing growth of 3.6 per cent, primarily due to trade and investment from the bloc, and its people still overwhelmingly support the EU and NATO. But Le Pen’s message is: this is not enough.
- “Romania is a big country with a high potential and deserves more,” she says.
- She compares the EU to the USSR. The intention here is to convince Romania that they have moved from being at the mercy of one superstate only to find themselves under the influence of another.
This view is backed by Janice Atkinson, a former-Conservative and UK Independence Party (UKIP) politician, who sends a message to the crowd arguing: “Romania has not shaken off the shackles of communism only to have them reimposed by the EU.” This is greeted by cheering.
But Atkinson’s own past includes targeting of Romanians for political gain. As a UKIP spokesperson, she sent out a press release in 2014 to constituents stating that «Ninety per cent of ATM [cash machine] crime is committed by Romanian gangs and drug and gun crime is mainly run by Eastern Europeans.”
This is not a mass movement in Romania — yet
The right in Romania is divided. There are many new parties with a mix of Christian, Anti-Islamic, Nationalistic, and anti-EU messages. Some overtly invoke the symbols and ideology of Romania’s 1930s Fascist party the Legionnaires, others just seize its platform with the usual carefree attitude the country’s elite has towards plagiarism.
Recently members of the country’s larger parties have adopted elements of far-right rhetoric in their own speeches, especially against Muslims. Senior politicians and intellectuals have warned that Syrian refugees and their ‘Islamic’ culture will threaten the Orthodox Christian values of Romania.
The Romanian organiser of this event — MEP Laurentiu Rebega — is an independent backed up by only a small political movement. The audience at the conference is not swarmed with admirers. They include a few Le Pen groupies, a couple who have come back to Romania from Canada because there “were too many Muslims there”, ex-soldiers and some kids who seem to be from the local high school. Their loyalty to the cause is not too evident.
Outside the casino, when Marine Le Pen drives up in a mini motorcade, there are a hundred people — carrying just as many Romanian flags — who have been choreographed to form a crescent to welcome her.