What is the (new) sovereignist movement?

The last couple of years have seen many countries in the EU under pressure from so-called “sovereignists”. There are two important milestones that have turned sovereignty into a political movement: Brexit and Donald Trump.

Starting in 2015, the “Vote Leave” campaign for Brexit ran under the slogan “take back control”, with various pundits and politicians competing to profess their new-found dedication to getting back the sovereignty they felt had been ceded to the EU. Meanwhile, in the US, Donald Trump was reviving the “America First” slogan for his presidential bid in the 2016 elections, a different perspective on sovereignty understood as “we matter most”, but one that amounts to the same as “taking back control”; the idea that we, the people, should take all decisions without considering the global context and regardless of any other implications or the effects on others.

Emboldened by the crises brought on by the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sovereignism is now relevant in many, if not all, European countries, as a reactionary movement connecting nationalism and populism[1]. It is reactionary in the sense that it grew as a reaction to recent political progressivism, which many conservatives have perceived as an existential threat, but also to the evolution of supranational bodies, mainly the EU, but also the UN, WHO, NATO and others. It is nationalist because it urges the return of control to nation-states, and populist because it specifically mentions “ordinary citizens” who must prevail over the elites, who are by definition corrupt, both legally and above all morally.

The sovereignist space in Romania

As most European countries, Romania has had its share of nationalist movements, even in its recent history. The “Great Romania Party”, founded in 1991, garnered 21% of the vote in the 2000 parliamentary election, making it the second party in Romania at that time. The party was founded on the vision of “reuniting” Romanians, focusing especially on the annexation of Moldova, and was widely criticized for various reasons, such as denying the Holocaust, advocating that thieves should be rounded up in stadiums and shot, as well as adopting an anti-Hungarian stance. Sovereignism was not in itself a central tenet of the party since Romania did not belong to either the EU or NATO at the time.

While Romanians remained mostly pro-Western during the following decade, political factions based on nationalism and orthodoxism did not disappear, but turned into a grand conspiracy theory claiming that everything from privatization to promoting democracy and the rule of law was in fact a plot devised by “Western colonial powers” to deliver the control of resources, politics and the judicial system into the hands of foreigners.[2] This trend was accelerated in the years 2015 - 2018, during which the National Anticorruption Directorate was especially successful in prosecuting political leaders and other powerful individuals.

Though mainstream parties attempted to capitalize on the anti-western narratives, it was a new party – AUR (Alliance for the Unification of Romanians) - that managed to turn them to account, getting an unexpected 9% of the vote in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Using similar tropes to other nationalist-populist parties, AUR also used the COVID crisis to claim the mantle of an anti-system party and also brought the “culture wars”[3] into the debate, thus becoming the first sovereignist party in the current sense of the term.

The ideological sovereignist movement, and the self-identification of public figures with it, actually started in the alternative media sphere through a group of influencers and media personalities who claim to give voice to valid critiques of mainstream narratives, while they are in fact spreading misinformation, conspiracy theories and propaganda for their own financial, political, and ideological gains.

Oana Lovin was one of the first influencers to weaponize the sovereignist position, becoming famous in the process. Starting as an “anti-anticorruption” activist, Lovin, a former video chat model, opened a Facebook page based on videos promoting COVID-related conspiracy theories and anti-EU narratives. She received a lot of attention in April 2020 for waving a bundle of asparagus during a protest against COVID restrictions, a reference to the groups of Romanians going to Germany to work in asparagus harvesting in spite of the pandemic.

Many other influencers and outlets focused their messaging on sovereignist topics, some of whom, such as former MPs Iulian Urban and Cozmin Gușă, concentrate on international politics, usually promoting/defending Trump or attacking political progressivism. Others, such as the activist Aurelian Popa or the online outlet Active News, focus on anti-vaccination propaganda, especially by alleging that western vaccines are dangerous and that EU policies on COVID were (intentionally) evil, and have been imposed on Romanian citizens with the connivance of “traitorous” politicians. Finally, some influencers, such as former tabloid stars Luis Lazarus and Adriana Bahmuțeanu, are using their platforms to push anti-western narratives.

While AUR is still predominant, the sovereignist space is becoming increasingly contested. Liviu Dragnea, former leader of the Social-Democrat Party, who was convicted of abuse of power in 2019, is preparing his return to politics with a new party known as the “Sovereign Romania Movement”.

Diana Șoșoacă, who was elected as a candidate for AUR, but was subsequently excluded for being too radical and aggressive, has started her own party “S.O.S. Romania”. While the official party manifesto acknowledges Romania’s place in the EU, the discourse promoted by Șoșoacă is a combination of nationalist and religious propaganda, and various conspiracy theories based on the notion that Romania is being abused by the West.

Similarly, former AUR deputy Mihai Lasca has started the “Patriots of the Romanian People” party, which has yet to issue an official manifesto, although the social media posts of Mr. Lasca consist of little more than an index of contemporary conspiracy theories.

Conspiracism as ideology

As Peter Pomerantsev noted, the most important change in how misinformation and conspiracy theories are used today is that they have completely replaced ideology. Unlike in the 20th century, they no longer support ideologies; they are themselves the ideology.

This is especially visible in the Romanian sovereignism movement, which purports to provide solutions for the seemingly perennial crises, while in fact only poisoning the public discourse with false narratives.

Their only ideology is based on the assertion that there is an ongoing fight with evil globalists who are trying to usher in a New World Order, in which there will be no borders, no (national) identity, and citizens will become mindless zombies, easy to control by the elites. This is a process involving significant changes; a “Great Reset” that would decimate the current population (through pandemics, vaccination, and wars), while enslaving the rest through digitalisation and “climate lockdowns”, i.e., restrictions on individual freedoms in the name of the “climate change hoax”.

This is the “Grand Conspiracy”, an overarching narrative that is used as a key for the interpretation of all messages. It has now become the main mechanism for both the alternative media and sovereignist politicians; all events reported in the news are turned into a conspiracy theory that points the finger at evil globalists.

For example, the COVID pandemic and the measures adopted in response were devised to reduce the population and to test people’s reaction to restrictions imposed on their rights. The EU’s approval that some insects were suitable for human consumption? Proof that they want to restrict our access to food, meat in particular. The promotion of LGBT rights? A globalist plot to undermine our Christian identity. The new law on child-protection services? A strategy of (western) globalists seeking to steal Romanian children.

Unfortunately, the game plan seems to be working, at least for now. Most of the influencers mentioned have seen their followings rise in the last year and their videos frequently get tens of thousands of views, with some exceeding 300.000 views. While a direct comparison with TV stations is not possible (views are counted differently), it is still worth mentioning that the most popular TV news channel had approximately 311.000 viewers. And it gets worse - that particular channel, România TV, is also part of the same ecosystem that weaponizes information disorders for financial and political gain.

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[1] Linda Basile & Oscar Mazzoleni (2020) Sovereignist wine in populist bottles? An introduction, European Politics and Society, 21:2, 151-162, https://doi.org/10.1080/23745118.2019.1632576

[2] https://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/bukarest/18433.pdf

[3] Issues concerning the cultural aspects of society, such as the role of religion, LGBT rights and sexual education, are weaponized by the claim that western attitudes to these topics are intended to destroy national identity.

Background illustration: Photo by CСKing from Adobe Stock license