EU's Expanding Borders Romania Is In. But Is the Country Ready?

On Tuesday, the European Union decided that Romania and Bulgaria are ready to join in January 2007. For Bucharest, the decision comes as a reward for its battle against corruption and reform of the judiciary. But are the Romanians themselves ready?

By Oliver Bilger in Bucharest

Bucharest politics may have made progress. But the country's poor may face skyrocketing prices.

Bucharest politics may have made progress. But the country's poor may face skyrocketing prices.

A number of young Romanians are more European than the Europeans. Ana Popa, for example, has already completed degrees in both German and English studies at the University of Bucharest -- and managed a degree in European Cultures on the side. While perhaps not typical of all Romanian youth, the 23-year-old isn't totally atypcial either. Young Romanians have long been praised for being well-educated, multi-lingual and highly motivated.

They are also -- like most of the country -- very much anticipating Romania's entry into the European Union. According to recent surveys, at least 80 percent of the country's population is feverishly anticipating the new year and, with it, accession into the EU. There had been talk of delaying the country's membership by a year, but most Romanians want to hear nothing of it.

On Tuesday the waiting finally ended. EU Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn and the European Commission said on Tuesday that both Romania and Bulgaria are on track to join the EU in January 2007. In the weeks leading up to the decision, it had hardly looked like a sure thing. Rehn had busy evaluated whether the government in Bucharest had pushed through the necessary reforms. He paid particular attention to the country's battle against corruption and the reform of the judiciary.

"We are not prepared"

For most in Brussels, though, the positive verdict for Romania was hardly surprising -- the country, politically at least, is ready to become a member of the European club. But is the population? Ana Popa isn't so sure. "The Romanians," she says, "imagine all sorts of wonderful things. But they will only come after a few years. Many are going to be shocked when they are confronted with the first effects of EU membership." Primarily she means the rising prices and the falling standard of living that will likely result. Prices have been rising quickly in the country even prior to membership and many in the country are slowly becoming concerned that EU membership will accelerate that process. "We are not prepared," Popa says.

Romania and Bulgaria on the way to the EU.

Romania and Bulgaria on the way to the EU.

It's a concern shared by more and more Romanians. They say that a lot of people in the country think things will immediately perk up following accession. They are expecting an instantly improved, Western standard of living, an economic boom, the end of poverty and corruption. But hardly anyone really knows what the true economic effects will be for the country. Argentina Traicu, the director of the state news agency Rompres, says that most aren't able to imagine what the results -- and the costs -- of membership might be. "Many have no idea which EU standards and norms they will be forced to comply with," she says.

A dearth of information about the EU is especially noticeable in the countryside. "The cities will become part of the EU," says Traicu. "But the people in the country have no idea what it's all about." Civil rights activist Mircea Dinescu says that "two Romanias are joining the EU at the same time." While parts of the country are already very European, Romanian peasants, he says, still live as they did in the Middle Ages.

Other observers are also concerned. Even within state ministries in Bucharest, not all of the government officials are adequately informed, says a culture ministry official who asked not to be identified. "People have a lot of expectations from the EU," says Gabriel Giurgiu, who is in charge of the "European Integration" beat for the public television station TVR. There is a big danger of disappointment, he says. "Many think that they will just be given money. They think the EU is some kind of Santa Claus."

From love to hate?

Giurgiu has another metaphor ready as well. The EU and Romania, he says, is like a couple in love. But it could very well be that, after the 2007 "wedding," that Romania discovers that not everything is quite as expected. "I am really concerned that the pre-marriage love will quickly be transformed into hate."

Despite such concerns, though, even skeptics would like to see the country join at the beginning of 2007. Romania, many say, is just as ready for membership as Spain or Greece were prior to their accessions. And Romania has made large strides in the direction of EU preparedness -- while for a long time, Bulgaria was seen as better prepared than its neighbor to the north, Romania is now well ahead. Since the last critical progress report delivered last October, the country has worked hard to get corruption under control -- one of the primary concerns in Brussels.

Battling corruption and reforming the country's judiciary are the tasks of Justice Minister Monica Macovei. At the moment, she is busy working through the numerous corruption scandals left behind by Adrian Nastase, Romania's prime minister from 2000 to 2004. Her biggest success to date: the state prosecutor's office has just filed charges against the former leader.

Mascovei has also managed to make steps toward depoliticizing the judiciary and increasing transparency. She also boosted the salaries of judges and prosecutors in an effort to make them less tempted to take bribes. Now, both positions earn €1,200 per month after five years of experience -- the same as a government minister. At the moment, Mascovei is moving onto the next items on her checklist -- often against resistance from within her own cabinet. She wants to make changes to criminal proceedings and wants to increase the transparency of politicians' private finances.

And even after joining next year, Romania's reform process will continue, promises Leonard Orban, a former accession negotiator for Romania. "It's in our interest to keep working," he says. Accession is a "historical chance for Romania to become a part of the European family. We belong to the family."

The risks of postponement

Romanians aren't the only ones who would like to see reforms continue once membership is granted. The European Commission is planning on maintaining pressure on both Romania and Bulgaria even after accession. Even if they may be ready to join the EU, there is still a lot of work to do before they can become part of the Schengen Agreement, which provides for a border free Europe. But when it comes to joining the EU, an extra year isn't likely to make much of a difference.

And there are risks to a postponement. With hopes so high, a delay could very well undermine the current government and create a political crisis in Bucharest -- which could set the country back. A frustrated populace could very easily turn to extremist parties -- hardly a rarity in Romania -- for answers. And accession is a foregone conclusion anyway, regardless if it comes in January or sometime further down the road. Following Tuesday's progress report, the government heads of the 25 EU members will likely make their final decision about Romania and Bulgaria in mid-June.

And if everything goes as expected, then on January 1, 2007, Ana Popa's prediction for Romania's initial EU experience will come true: At the beginning, she says, Romania's membership will be mostly a formality. But for the populace, accession is a bit like a vaccination: "It hurts a bit at first," she says. "But then it begins to work."


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