Within the last five years, many EU member states have witnessed various forms of civic demonstrations, with distinct purposes and diverse forms of organisation – be it against corruption, anti-austerity, anti-government, anti-populist or even pro-European. But the main element that can be observed in the period between 2015 and 2019 is the rise of citizen mobilisation across Europe on European topics and with a much wider participation than before. Is this a sign of increased democratic participation at EU level? Can we talk about the creation of a sort of European Demos that scholars discussed for years to be missing from the EU? The aim of this analysis is to describe several protests which have taken place in Romania in recent years. The intention is to look closely and highlight the main drivers of these diverse protests, pointing towards the ways citizens had mobilized to carry out these demonstrations, as well as the persistence showed by the demonstrators to make sure their aims are achieved.

A new civic culture of European protests?

In the last decade, large public demonstrations have become a major phenomenon around the world and citizen mobilization had proved to be in many ways effective. This global trend shows how citizens have become more and more aware of the need to defend their rights on the streets and not limiting their actions to voting or party membership. Beyond the EU, we witnessed in recent years a trend of new protests at the global level (and the current violent street protests in Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador or Hong Kong are illustrative). At this point, it is legitimate to question ourselves whether we are now witnessing the emergence of more engaged civic movements of concerned masses who try to make their voice heard on issues and decisions that affect them. But are there indeed signs of a new civic culture of protests?

Looking back, of course there are EU member states with a much wider experience in street protests and civic mobilization  (especially if we look at former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the fact exactly 30 years ago people peaceful protests managed to change the political regimes in 1989). What is different now is that we are witnessing a unique wave of protests that put not only national problems on the public agenda, but also European topics (such as the migration crisis, or debt crisis and so on) with quite similar patterns of demonstrations covering various cultural and national contexts. The way protests have become so common in our times and the rate at which they happen is enough to observe an important shift in the way citizens resist power structures and how the civic society mobilizes itself in achieving its aims.

But does EU have a Demos? In political science a Demos is one of the essential criteria for a democracy, defined as “a group of people, the majority of whom feel sufficiently connected to each other to voluntarily commit to a democratic discourse and to a related decision-making process” (more here). Let’s look in short at the recent mass protests in Romania and their relation with the EU in order to discuss whether this can account for a European ‘demos’, even in an emerging form.

Anti-corruption and pro-EU Protests in Romania

Between 2015 and 2019, Romania experienced some of the biggest street protests since the violent 1989 Revolution that ended the Communist regime after almost 5 decades of ruling. In 2017, Romania celebrated a decade of EU membership, and the mass street protest stood as a sign of civic awakening, especially when symbols of EU (like the protesters forming the EU flag with their phones and messages for support of EU values) became viral in international media. There were different claims for these recent waves of Romanian protests, but it is important to have a look on their most visible outcomes. It all started after the tragic incident at Bucharest’s Colectiv night club on 30 October 2015, which took the lives of more than 65 people and wounded more than 100 others. The was followed by the biggest street protests in Romania that time, with more than 70.000 people taking to the streets in Bucharest and all over the country, marching against corruption and state indifference in managing the fire and its consequences. The resignation of the Prime Minister at that time Victor Ponta created political instability and turmoil, as street protests continued. Protests continued in January 2017 few days after the Sorin Grindeanu cabinet was sworn into office. Protests took place throughout the country against the ordinance bills which were proposed by the Romanian Ministry of Justice in regards to the pardoning of certain already committed crimes, as well as the amendment of the Romanian penal code (mostly in regards to the abuse of power). Then, in February 2017 a decree which would have protected several public officials from prosecution caused huge protests across the country, despite the mass negative reactions from the public as well as Judicial institutions, the newly sworn-in government went ahead and approved the ordinance bill thereby modifying the penal code and procedure on the 31st of January, due to this the opposition raised concerns in regards to the ordinance, stating that it was approved in a bid to decriminalize corruption by government officials, thereby enabling a significant amount of current and former politicians to avoid ongoing investigations and prosecution. Following the announcement that the ordinance had been passed, protests started that night as the next day being the 1st of February the protests had grown to over 300.000 people in various parts of the country. The number of the protesters grew on a daily basis and then reaching a peak of over 500.000 Romanians throughout the country, making it the largest turn out of protesters since the fall of communism.

It is important to mention that the year 2017 came with a strong symbolism, too. This represented a particular moment for the re-evaluation of the impact of EU membership on each state in the last decade and a reflection on the main successes and drawbacks. At the same time, the year 2017 represented a huge milestone for EU integration, as the Union celebrated also 60 years since one of its main founding documents, the Treaty of Rome, was signed. This was considered by many as a proper time for re-evaluation of the European idea. Multiple slogans connected with the EU and European values as opposing the Government lead by the Socialist Party were used by protested in Victoriei Square, which continues to display until this day a huge blue and yellow coloured flag of the EU. These traits made the Romanian protests unique compared to others in the EU.

After the initial protest, and a massive mobilization on social media, the protest grew every day (despite cold weather and heavy snow). Even President Klaus Iohannis participated in the protest as a show of solidarity with protesters in Timisoara, Cluj-Napoca, Iasi  Brasov, Sibiu, Constanta, Bacau as well as solidarity gatherings of Romanians in diaspora in London, Paris, Copenhagen. All of those protests transformed into pro-EU ones, as EU flags were used by participants in sign of alignment to European values and EU’s bid for respect of rule of law and fight against corruption.

Since the root cause of the mass protests were not addressed by the Socialist Government, the protests continued to intensify on a daily basis throughout the country with more and more protesters demanding the resignation of the government and for early elections.  However, the protests were able to force the government in 2017 to withdraw the ordinance, thereby leading to the resignation of the justice minister Florin Iordache who was responsible for proposing the ordinance.

The next protest would ensue on the 20th of January 2018, when over 80.000 Romanians took to the streets to protests against the changes to the penal code and the justice systems laws. Smaller scale protests continued over various parts of the country on a daily basis until the 10th of August 2018, when anti-government protest with the „Diaspora at Home” motto took place in Bucharest. The 10 August protests were marked by violence in comparison to the previous peaceful protest that had taken place in the past. What ensued was a wave of mass protests with high turnout throughout the country. “The Diaspora at home” protests were organized and promoted mainly by Romanians living abroad, who had returned home in significant numbers to take part in the protests. In total up to 100,00 thousand protesters turned out in front of the Romanian government headquarters – Victoria Palace, while in other major cities over 40,000. The protesters requested the resignation of the prime minister Viorica Dancila and her cabinet. Their grievances were due to governments decision’s on judicial legislation as well the attempted modification of the penal code, as well as the dismissal of the Prosecutor General of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA in Romanian), Laura Codruta Kovesi (currently EU’s Chief Prosecutor) and also the fact that Liviu Dragnea (former leader of the Socialist Party) was the head of the Chamber of Deputies even though he had been sentenced to prison on suspicion of corruption.

The protests in Bucharest had peacefully began in the afternoon of 10th of August, before violent clashes erupted later on in the evening as a result of  the  use of force from the Police, who tried to prevent some protesters who had attempted to enter into the government building. Water cannons, pepper sprays, and tear gas were used by the gendarmes. However, the majority of the protesters carried on with the peaceful protest. This event remained as a painful one in the history of street mobilisation in Romania, and it became a game changer in all the anti-corruption campaign against the former government in Romania led by the Socialist Party. During the most recent 2019 Presidential elections, marked by an unprecedented participation of Romanian Diaspora  (close to 1 million voters), the events of last year’s Diaspora protest were used as part of the electoral campaign messages by the Liberal party. This became a proof that protests that involved a transnational mobilisation (including Romanian diaspora) with pro-European messages managed to become a political force to be reflected in voter’s turnout and party’s messages.


It is important to mention that Romanian citizens are one of the most EU-enthusiasts in the new member states, based on the high level of trust in the EU, with a huge difference compared to Visegrad countries examples. But as recent research argues, this is a sort of ‘superficial trust’ of Romanians in the EU, not based on information and not emerging as a direct consequence of a more Europeanized public sphere, but rather as a counterpart to the very low levels of trust in national institutions. In other words, I showed that Romanians tend to project certain hopes and positive projections on the EU (based on limited information on the EU), as a compensation for their distrust in the Romanian political class (more here).

Quite evident is the number of common features that characterise the current wave of protests both in Europe and the world at large (most evident in the Friday Strikes for Climate movement, for example). One of this key characteristics is the fact that these protests are driven by various local issues and grievances as well as popular concerns, as some protests aim to push for policy reforms , some aim to oust underperforming and corrupt regimes from power, suffice to say most demonstrations are made up of various elements thereby involving groups whose agendas and modes of operation are different. Overall, these recent protests do contain certain radical elements while some are moderately liberal and reformist. Notably the defining feature of these manifestations is their eclectic nature, since in general terms they do contain a variety of aims, as some tend to have specific policy grievances as well as system-related demands ranging from simple policy reforms on issues such as taxes , wages etc., as well as demanding a total overhaul and restructuring of the system as a result different protests tend to exhibit specific and systemic dimensions.

For sure the protests in Romania are part of wider forms of active citizenship that occurred in the last 5 years in other EU member states, ranging from pro-rule of law protests in Bulgaria, anti-populism and pro-EU in Germany (as a reaction to the rise of far-right parties  like AfD and their anti-immigrant protests), as well as anti-austerity and anti-establishment movements in Greece. As I tried to argue, civic mass mobilization and street demonstrations have occurred significantly in a bid to address certain European issues (like the need to promote rule of law against corrupt mismanagement), as well as to air out grievances with the system or certain political decisions aiming at weakening the independence of the judiciary.

It is important to note that these protests are innately driven by European values held by the citizens who engage in such strong civic manifestations (and not on narrow ideological agendas), noting the fact that more and more protests would continue to occur globally, not only in Europe. These protests have both innovative features and some very creative forms of manifestations (like laser tailor made messages on political headquarters), but they hold also common elements with older more classical types of civic mobilisations in the past. If they indeed managed to create a culture of stronger civic engagement in Romania is to be seen on longer term, and it is too early to tell. What is more evident is that they managed to reach the formation of new political options and new political parties connected to these protests All these parties have a very clear cut pro-European agenda. An example is the fact that Romaniațs former EU Commissioner Dacian Cioloș, also the leader of a new established party in Romania PLUS, is now the leader of the newly formed political centrist group in the European Parliament – Renew).  Thereby the importance of these civic manifestations is seen in the way it promoted unity between different categories of civic movements who rallied together for a common political cause, as well as feel the need for their voice to be heard not only at national but also at EU level. As the protests continue to strengthen the idea that that unorganised civic groups play an important role in politics, such phenomena have increased the expectations held by Romanian citizens acting as European citizens, sending messages not only towards their governments, but also to EU institutions, as they tend to request accountability from those who govern. These can be considered signs of an emerging European Demos in Romania’s civic culture.

One can also state that such forms of active engagement by citizens can pave a way for new forms of politics (more civic oriented, as shown by the new political parties formed in Romania such as USR and PLUS). Most of these civic movements did not have a hierarchy, or a formal leader, but are able to mobilize in ways that integrate a huge section of the population through online communication. Moreover, spontaneity and persistence proved to be a key factors. As such, those forms of civic mobilizations in Romania tend to connect diverse issue-based networks not aimed at attaining power or to achieve clear cut aims. But they succeed also in set ting up themselves as counter-structures that can confront power, reshape social values as well as create distinctive collective identities (as shown by the #resist movement in Romania)  that foster a type of general hostility aimed at corrupt structures and systems of power. As such, I conclude by arguing that they reflect an important shift in the citizen-state relationship in Romania, creating the need for a more efficient deliberative democracy at both national and European level.

This analysis was written in the project “A new narrative for Europe: Bringing more union into the European Union – the cost of non EU” (Acronym BRING), funded through the programme Europe for Citizens, coordinated by CRPE, where SNSPA is partener. The opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author.


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