Citation by the Board of Directors of the Society
for the Conferring of the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen
to the President of Romania
The European Union today is divided and polarised on many fundamental issues while – in view of the enormous global challenges we face – what we really need right now is consensus, mutual respect and reconciliation. In the eastern part of the Union, one man in particular stands out as embodying our shared European values, our commitment to upholding the European rule of law and our shared vision of a European future: the recipient of the Charlemagne Prize 2020, the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis.
Step by step, he has guided a country – one that succeeded in overthrowing a brutal dictatorship and yet, after the revolution in 1989, still had to deal with disappointments in terms of its expectations of the West – on its way towards becoming the most European country in South Eastern Europe.
While other Member States are adopting nationalist-conservative or even right-wing populist stances towards the European Union, Klaus Iohannis, with enormous dedication and success, has led Romania to espouse a pro-European policy committed to the rule of law. Iohannis strengthens the European Union, is committed to its objectives and promotes cooperation between its Member States. What he has achieved for Romania represents one of the greatest advances in integration since 1989. And he is a great proponent of fairness, of protection of minorities and of cultural diversity, as well as being a leading mediator and bridge-builder between Western and Eastern European societies.
It is due to his approach that a legal and efficient environment – such a vital factor for the community of values that is the European Union – has been established for a thriving national economy with which Romania can now present itself to the EU as a modern, forward-looking and optimistic country.
Klaus Iohannis was born on 13 June 1959 in Sibiu/Hermannstadt. A member of the Romanian-German ethnic group of Transylvanian Saxons, he describes himself as "an ethnic German and a Romanian citizen". After completing his studies in Physics at the Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca in 1983, he worked as a high school physics teacher in Sibiu before becoming the Deputy General School Inspector of Sibiu County in 1997, and later, in 1999, the county's General School Inspector.
Already a member of the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania (FDGR/DFDR) since 1990, in 2000 – a time in which Romania was torn by domestic unrest and polarisation – he was elected as the Forum's candidate for the office of Mayor of his home town, Sibiu. The election result – a landslide victory with over 70% of the votes – was all the more remarkable considering the fact that only a small percentage of the local population actually belongs to the Transylvanian-Saxon ethnic minority.
He found himself in politics "quite by accident", as he later remarked in retrospect. "What's my secret? I think the answer is simply that, as a rule, I manage to find the right way to tackle issues." Quite obviously, and above all with resounding success! The fact that he was re-elected as the Mayor of Sibiu in 2004, 2008 and 2012 – with overwhelming majorities of the votes well above the 75% mark – speaks for itself.
The main reason for his popularity was the impressive growth that Sibiu achieved under his leadership. Thanks to a skilful combination of liberalisation and promotion of capital investments in the millions – also from European partner states – the regional economy experienced such robust growth that, within just a few years, Sibiu was transformed from a relatively insignificant regional city into one of the most culturally diverse, best developed and most prosperous centres in the whole country, and into a highly attractive tourist destination, in other words: into a Romanian success story and role model. The renovation of the historic old town, the modernisation of the infrastructure, and, most significantly, the choice of Sibiu (alongside Luxembourg) as "European Capital of Culture" in 2007 were all largely due to the efforts and vision of Klaus Iohannis.
His sober and pragmatic summary at the end of his time in office as Mayor of Sibiu: "Those who have invested in Sibiu have come to know and appreciate this location, and almost all of them have expanded their operations. The majority of them have doubled their capacities over the past ten years. Major German companies are continuing to expand. All this goes to show that the city is also capable of supplying an appropriately qualified labour force."
In early 2013, Iohannis, who had already been in discussion as a possible candidate for the office of Prime Minister back in 2009, decided to join the National Liberal Party (PNL), and was shortly after elected first Deputy President of the party. In June 2014, he advanced to the position of President of the PNL and was nominated to run for the Presidency of Romania in the same year as the candidate of the "Christian Liberal Alliance", an electoral alliance of the PNL with the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL).
The run-up to the presidential election was accompanied by a never-ending series of corruption scandals involving high-ranking political office-holders and members of parliament from a range of parties. In response to this, Klaus Iohannis‘s core message was clear-cut:
"I represent a Romania of things well done, without corruption and nepotism […] I am the guarantee for an independent judiciary and for conflict resolution through dialogue. I will work for the benefit of the citizens, and will not be pushing policies on TV talk shows. What has been achieved on a small scale in Sibiu can also be achieved for all of Romania […] People have had enough of empty promises and lies; they want to see facts."
In the first round of the election, he lagged about 10% behind the Prime Minister at the time, Victor Ponta, but in the second ballot – much to the surprise of many observers – he prevailed over his opponent with over 54% of the votes. On 21 December 2014, he was officially sworn in as the President of Rumania.
A "structured worker", rational, diligent and hands-on, firm, credible and sincere, down-to-earth, upstanding and correct – these are the attributes, almost Prussian in quality, one might be tempted to say, with which the man from Sibiu is most commonly characterised. Even his supporters sometimes bemoan his lack of the more aggressive approach so typical of Romanian politics. But, in fact, the character traits that Klaus Iohannis embodies are exactly what his compatriots have sorely missed for such a long time.
Moreover, the President has also proved to be absolutely unwavering in his stance on two issues: his resolute pro-European course (in many cases "with no ifs or buts") and – closely associated with this course – his fight against corruption and cronyism, and for the separation of powers and the rule of law. It soon became crystal clear that Iohannis's first term of office was destined to be dominated by an on-going conflict between the – nominally social democratic – government at that time, which was on a confrontational course with the EU regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption, and the Head of State with his agenda of a "Romania of things well done", a Romania firmly based on the rule of law, on transparency and on freedom from corruption.
This conflict began escalating when, shortly after it came into power, the Grindeanu government signed off on plans to radically weaken Romania's anti-corruption legislation by means of emergency decrees to amend the penal codes in order to exempt cases of corruption and abuse of office when the budget damage incurred was under (approx.) 50,000 euros, and to pardon persons serving prison sentences of under five years and thus clear the way for convicted criminals to (re-)enter public office. In response, on 18 January 2017, Iohannis presented himself at the seat of government and, for the first time, exercised his constitutional right as President to preside over a cabinet meeting in cases where exceptionally important issues – for example relating to national security – were on the agenda. In the presence of the media, he made his position clear: "There are two elephants in the room and no one is talking about them: the emergency pardoning decree and the decree that changes criminal codes."
The public response was immediate. Just a few days later more than 10,000 people mobilised to demonstrate against the government's planned decrees – a demonstration which the President himself attended, in an exceptional show of solidarity, and, to great applause, expressed his opinion in unusually clear and harsh words: "A gang of politicians who have problems with the law want to change the legislation and weaken the state of law … Romanians are rightly indignant." Two days later, on 24 January, in an address commemorating the Day of Unification of the Romanian Principalities, he made his stance even clearer. After honoring those responsible for founding the modern state and establishing the criminal code, he then switched over to a criticism of the current attempts of some politicians to "rummage around in the law" and "purge their own criminal files“, and announced his intention to call a referendum so that the Romanian people could have their say on the continuation of the fight against corruption.
When the government nevertheless went ahead with its plans and, on 31 January, ratified the proposed legislative changes per emergency decrees, the President immediately announced that he would take the decrees to the constitutional court. After further mass demonstrations in which up to a half a million Romanians participated, the government revoked the decrees on 5 February, before they were due to come into effect.
In the following period, President Iohannis remained steadfast, refusing to endorse already passed laws that contained systematic changes to the judiciary and attempts to dilute the corruption law, submitting them instead to the constitutional court for intense scrutiny. In early 2019, he finally made use of his presidential power of initiative to call a referendum "in questions of national interest“. The referendum was held concurrently with the European election, and over 86% of the voters confirmed that they were on his side in the fight against corruption and for the rule of law.
Just a few days earlier, Iohannis, on the occasion of Romania assuming the rotating Presidency of the Council of Europe, had convened the members of the EU Council in his home city to "discuss and plan the future of Europe together". In a joint statement issued at the end of the summit, the heads of state and government emphasised, among other things, their resolve "to protect our way of life, democracy and the rule of law. The unalienable rights and the fundamental freedoms of all Europeans were hard fought and will never be taken for granted. We will uphold our shared values and principles enshrined in the Treaties." For Klaus Iohannis, the fact that this document bears the title "Declaration of Sibiu" is certainly a well-deserved validation of his political course.
Even before the start of Romania's turn at the Presidency of the EU Council, Iohannis had emphasised the pro-European consensus firmly anchored in Romania's people and politics in his speech to the European Parliament: "11 years ago, when Romania joined the great European family, I, a Romanian, felt extremely proud of experiencing such an important moment for my country. Next year, when Romania takes over the Presidency of the European Union Council for the first time, the Sibiu Summit will represent a milestone for our European family. It is our duty and our responsibility to shape the future of Europe. National pride and European pride are not obsolete concepts. Europe is Romania and Romania is Europe. One of the most important lessons we have learned is the democracy lesson. This is why we cherish so much the values of the European family. Romania is deeply attached to the European project. We have a vibrant and dynamic society, continuously developing. We are a young democracy and we own the resources available to improve. The Romanians are actively connected to civic values. They have clearly proved it; they made their voice heard in defence of the rule of law and democracy. It is our ambition to overcome any obstacle to remain anchored in the great European family we fundamentally belong to. The young generation believes in Europe and is involved in debates on our future in a positive and, more importantly, optimistic manner."
Ultimately, Romania's turn at the EU Council Presidency turned out to be far less overshadowed by internal political differences than people in many places had feared. Donald Tusk formally expressed his gratitude to President Iohannis "for an energetic and successful EU Council Presidency" during which major legislative proposals were made, including on border protection, on reduction of CO2 emissions and on building a digital Europe.
In June 2019 – well before the end of the EU Council Presidency – the Romanian government announced that it had abandoned its course of judicial reform. After a successful vote of no confidence in November, it was replaced by the new, liberal government under the leadership of Ludovic Orban.
On 24 November 2019, in a landslide victory at the polls, Klaus Iohannis was re-elected for another term as Head of State. His – typically unassuming – comment on the election result: "A modern, European, normal Romania won today."
The Board of Directors of the Society for the Conferring of the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen have elected to honour the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, as an outstanding proponent of European values, of freedom and democracy, of the protection of minorities and of cultural diversity, as a man who has rendered significant service in the interests of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary – a fundamental precondition for further deepening of integration.
The award of the prize is meant as an encouragement to Klaus Iohannis to continue with determination on his European course, and as an encouragement to us all to embrace, espouse and advance the idea of European integration.