COMMENT: EU needs to act tougher to make things move in new members

By bne IntelliNews June 19, 2007

Bogdan Preda in Bucharest -

Most Romanians wanting to obtain a building permit from a local authority, a decent medical check-up at a state hospital or a proper motor vehicle inspection in a garage believe they won’t get things done on time if they don’t bribe those with the power to make things happen for them; only a very few think their bribes will be refused on such occasions. This is still the situation in Romania and its southern neighbour Bulgaria, and the European Commission on June 27 is expected to voice its criticism over how little progress has been made in these countries in its first report since they joined on January 1.

No one in the EU and its executive arm, the Commission, expected that the problems with corruption, the justice systems, and even farming and animal safety in both countries would change for the better in just one day. It’s just that many hoped that six months would bring about more changes for the better for the average Romanian and Bulgarian, now full EU citizens.

The question is whether a rebuke from the Commission on June 27 will be enough to make sure things will move faster in these neighbouring nations with a combined population of almost 30m Or does it need to threaten to take away part of €11.5bn of financial aid planned through 2009 for Romania and the €4.6bn destined for Bulgaria?


Romania, the larger of the two countries with almost 22m inhabitants, is a country of sharp contrasts. When compared to other EU nations, even those members that joined in 2004 like the Czech Republic or Hungary, Romania can easily be singled out as a country with far too much lack of respect from local and central government authorities towards the average citizen. That depressing situation has resulted in more than 2m Romanians seeking a better life in recent years in foreign countries such as Spain and Italy.

In the more than 17 years since Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime was toppled, the country’s democratic governments have build no more than 150 kilometres of highway of European standard. Romania has no major arterial highway yet, meaning that drivers must spend more time, fuel and money on two-lane roads from the capital Bucharest to its western borders than is needed to drive from Hungary’s border with Romania to Vienna, in Austria.

The 150-kilometre leg of a road linking Bucharest with the Black Sea port of Constanta still has no gas stations, because for more than two years the current government has failed to carry out auctions for such facilities. Thieves are stealing the highway’s protection fences, while toilets built by the state road company in resting areas along the existing highway are now locked and guarded. And all this is happening in a country that is unable to absorb enough of the money that the EU is ready to give it as financial assistance. Why can't it absorb the money? Because authorities have failed to organise the projects that require financial assistance.

Let’s take another example. Romania has failed to privatize its flagship tractor maker Tractorul Brasov for more than 15 years now. Heavily indebted and highly inefficient, the firm has swallowed up tens of millions of euros of public money in subsidies and piled up huge debts. Even so, successive governments since 1990 have failed to put in place a viable plan to help Romanian farmers get loans to buy tractors made by Tractorul. The result: the tractor plant is being shut down and most of the country’s poor farmers still plough their land with the help of bulls and horses.

Does he have a permit?

Agriculture Minister Decebal Traian Remes complains the country might not be able to absorb the hundreds of millions of euros from the EU in farming aid this year because there are no feasible projects for the money. However, farmers say Romania will probably suffer the worst draught this year in almost two decades, in the absence of irrigation stations and pipes, which have been dismantled or in many cases stolen.

The same lack of respect for the ordinary Jon exists in the justice system. Trials often last for years unless high-ranking politicians are involved. Big developers, swimming in cash from the spiralling price of land in and around Bucharest and other large cities, have been awarded building permits allowing them to build huge office buildings just metres away from residential homes and even churches, without prior consultation of existing dwellers and in most of cases before any basic utilities such as roads, electricity or water have been supplied by the same authorities.

While such things are happening, President Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu spend more time and energy accusing each other in endless feuds, too many of them public, instead of making sure the country doesn’t miss out on the chance offered by the EU just half a year ago. Such internal feuds have even prevented Romania from organizing elections for the European Parliament, making it the only member state whose EU lawmakers are currently appointed instead of being elected.

Safeguarding the future

Newspapers in both Romania and Bulgaria had been speculating that the Commission might unleash its so-called "safeguard" clauses on the two countries, possibly reducing financial assistance packages to one or both of them. European Commission officials, however, have rejected such a move, with spokesman Mark Gray saying the Commission would only consider such measures at a later stage after looking more thoroughly at measures taken by the two governments to speed up reforms.

But would such financial "safeguards" even help ordinary Romanians and Bulgarians who are hoping for better lives within the EU? No, because they would hurt the people, not their inefficient leaders; it would be like punishing the school’s pupils because the principal and his deputy haven't done their jobs properly.

What can and should be done, then?

The Commission must alter its own rules and seek nastier punishments to be meted out against politicians who are willing to rule in its newest member states but are failing to deliver. It may not be in line with its principles, but then the EU could claim the exceptions it made when it accepted less-prepared Romania and Bulgaria into the club requires more exceptions in Brussels. Simply put, it should be more demanding with governments and less lenient with the stances and policies that have led to poor performances. Romanian leaders have so far provided enough evidence that they hide behind general remarks and blame others for their failures.

It sounds impolite to tell these politicians to their faces about their shortcomings, but ultimately that's preferable to making an entire nation pay for the price of diplomacy.

Unfortunately, Romania has reached a point where diplomacy it can't afford diplomacy. The latest row that led to the suspension of President Basescu by lawmakers who in return got a painful slap in the face from voters who backed Basescu stands as proof that politicians in Romania cling to power like no others.

The time has come for the EU to tell them about real responsibility; the rest will be done by citizens in national elections.

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