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President Steinmeier's Romania visit signals closening ties

Sabina Fati | Keno Verseck
May 25, 2023

Romania was long a country on the fringes of the EU and NATO. But Russia's war against Ukraine has changed all that. Thanks to its cooperation with Germany in particular, Romania's geopolitical role is growing.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) shakes hands with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis (right), Cotroceni Presidential Palace, Bucharest, Romania, Wednesday, May 24, 2023
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) arrived in Romania for a three-day state visit on WednesdayImage: Vadim Ghirda/AP/picture alliance

For many in Germany, Romania is still the sick man of the European Union. It is seen as an economically unsteady, politically unstable, rather corrupt country in the southeast of the continent that produces a high number of so-called "social tourists" — a term used in the past by German politicians to describe immigrants from Romania and other poorer EU countries.

German politics has also not paid a great deal of attention to Romania in recent years.

For example, very few people in Germany are aware that trains in Romania are now more punctual and that Internet connections there are now faster than in Germany, that tens of thousands of highly trained Romanian doctors and engineers are boosting Germany's GDP or that the city of Cluj-Napoca is one of the hottest IT hubs in Europe.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (center) was received with full military honors by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis (left) at the start of the former's three-day state visit to Romania, Bucharest, May 24, 2023
Evidence of Germany's watershed foreign and defense policy shift: Steinmeier, who played a key role in shaping Germany's Russia policy for many years, is on a three-day visit to RomaniaImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

But Russia's devastating and brutal internecine war against Ukraine has changed so much — including Romania's image and role. Indeed, Romania is now a key partner within the EU and NATO, above all for Germany.

Neighbor of Moldova and Ukraine

The reason for this is that Romania is situated in what is probably the most fragile region in southeastern Europe at present: Right next to the Republic of Moldova, which seems to be the next target on Russia's list and is only a few dozen kilometers from the key Ukrainian port city of Odesa, a regular target for Russian shelling.

What's more, together with Poland, Romania is one of Ukraine's strongest and most important supporters in Europe, even though Bucharest speaks much more softly than Warsaw and provides both military and other aid silently, almost without the knowledge of the general public.

Political visits from Berlin

This is why there has lately been a steady stream of senior German politicians making the journey to Bucharest. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was recently in the Romanian capital, among other things for trilateral talks with the presidents of Romania and Moldova.

From left: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, President of Moldova Maia Sandu and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis after their trilateral meeting at the Cotroceni Palace, Bucharest. Romania, April 3, 2023
High-level visit from Germany: Chancellor Olaf Scholz (left) was also in Bucharest in April for trilateral talks with the presidents of Moldova (center) and Romania (right)Image: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP

On Wednesday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier arrived in Romania for a three-day state visit. While there, he will hold high-level political talks with President Klaus Iohannis in Bucharest. He will also travel to the city of Sibiu and meet representatives of the German community in Romania. He will then visit Timisoara — one of three European Capitals of Culture 2023 — where he will honor the city as the birthplace of the uprising against dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.

Future strategic cooperation

The main motivation for Steinmeier's visit is likely to be the future strategic cooperation between Germany and Romania and, in particular, ongoing support for Ukraine and Moldova.

While it may be premature to speak of a Berlin–Bucharest axis, everything would appear to point in that direction.

Firstly, there are no political differences between Germany and Romania, as there are between Germany and Poland and Hungary. Secondly, many German companies have set up in Romania. Thirdly, despite recent domestic political problems, no political decision-maker in Romania is calling into question the country's solidarity with Ukraine and its place in the EU and NATO.

Armaments cooperation

In April, German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall announced it would open a factory for the repair of Leopard tanks in the northern Romanian city of Satu Mare. Prior to that, Jens Plötner — Chancellor Scholz's security advisor — met with high-ranking representatives of the Romanian government to discuss the "development of new technologies in the defense industry."

According to several media reports, Germany also wants to help Romanian armaments companies to modernize so that they can manufacture Howitzers to NATO standards and Soviet-style missiles of the kind used by Ukraine.

Germany a vital economic partner

These developments are no coincidence. Germany has long been Romania's most important economic partner: German investment in the country in 2021 reached €12.5 billion ($13.4 billion), while the volume of trade between the two countries in 2022 was €33 billion, with imports from Romania reaching €15 billion and German exports to Romania about €18 billion.

Trains transporting French military armored fighting vehicles and Leclerc tanks are stationed in Voila, central Romania, Wednesday, November 16, 2022.
A company of Leclerc tanks arrived in Romania to reinforce NATO's Battle Group Forward Presence, based in Cincu, Romania, in November 2022Image: Sgt Jerome Salles/Armee de Terre/Defense/EMACOM/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Over 23,000 German companies have created 300,000 new jobs in Romania with the support of funding programs for professional training. The Romanian ambassador in Berlin, Adriana Stanescu, has said, "Romania is developing into a secure strategic investment and business location for Germany."

Romania's focus shifts to Germany

Since the collapse of communism, Romania's political elite has almost exclusively relied on the US as the country's strategic partner. This is illustrated by the fact that the US has a strong military presence in the country and has set up one of the largest missile-defense systems on NATO's southeastern European frontier in Deveselu.

Culturally and socially, however, Romania's ties to Germany are historically stronger. In recent years, Germany has overtaken Spain and Italy as the destination of choice for Romanian emigrants. Among them are many highly skilled workers seeking work in Germany and many Moldovans with Romanian citizenship.

Historic opportunities

Paradoxically, it is Russia's bloody war against Ukraine and Germany's watershed foreign and defense policy shift that offer  Romania a historic opportunity to shake off its old image as the poor relation of the EU. Should a Berlin–Bucharest axis come about, Romania will be able to bolster its image as a reliable partner of the EU and NATO.

George Simion, the leader of the nationalist party AUR (The Alliance for the Union of Romanians) gestures during a protest against the health ministry, Bucharest, January 30, 2021
George Simion is head of the pro-Russian, nationalist party AUR. Closer Berlin–Bucharest ties could help Romania counter illiberal tendencies such as the influence of the AURImage: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images

This could help Romania counter illiberal tendencies within the country, such as the influence of the anti-western Orthodox Church or the pro-Russian, extreme right-wing Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR).

It could also attract billions of euros in investment the country urgently needs to modernize its infrastructure.

After decades of focusing on its partnership with Russia over the heads of the countries in central and southeastern Europe, Berlin now has the chance to show it is taking the region more seriously. It is also an opportunity for President Steinmeier, who for many years was the architect of Germany's Russia policy.

This article was originally published in German.

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Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter