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Vol 2, No 40
20 November 2000
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Scapegoat and Scarecrow
A Romanian view of EU integration
Delia Despina Dumitrica

Integration into the European Union is a key issue for Romanian society. After the European Commission released its annual report on Romanian accession to the EU on 8 November 2000, everyone, including the extremist parties, such as the right wing Greater Romania Party (PRM), is talking about the EU, stressing that integration is essential to progress.

This tact has become an essential tool of the political campaigns for the general elections scheduled for 26 November 2000. But are Romanians (and not only politicians and intellectuals) really committed to becoming part of the EU structures? If so, what do they understand of this process?

The East-West divide

The long-standing divisions between Eastern and Western Europe, contain an inherent value statement: not only are the two regions geographically divided, but they also have distinct hierarchical structures. Even if regarded as a purely geographical division, throughout history this separation has gained a judgmental character. Eastern Europe has become associated with backwardness, poverty and bloody wars, as opposed to the progressive civilised Europeans of the West. The accession process has accentuated the extent of these divisions.

With the nineteenth century nation-building process, Romanians have regarded themselves as inheritors of European civilizations rather than the creators. Consequently, their appurtenance to Europe has never been questioned. The Cold War only emphasized the divisive line between the Democratic West and the Communist East. Although official nationalist propaganda depicted Romania as a superior civilization, Romanians could no longer avoid their "exclusion" from Europe.

With the suppression of political and human rights, and the economy in a state of decay, Romania could not compare itself to the powerful Western democracies. Of course, this led not only to discrepancies in the living standards, but also to ideological and cultural gaps, affecting the "collective way of thinking" (in terms of perceiving and depicting reality) and increasing the distance between the two halves of Europe.

After 1989, economic bankruptcy encouraged the prioritization of Romania's integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. Despite its air of leftist nostalgia, the Iliescu government (1990-1996) realized that without an international influx of capital and know-how, the country could no longer survive.

The violent rupture with Communism and what it stood for (repression, terror and uniformity) turned the masses towards Western democracies as the only valid model—so far. The fear of a potential Russian interference within Romania's quest for democracy and the need to distance from the "backward" East heavily weighted in favor of the integration process.

The Euro-Atlantic structures offer not only the promise of freedom and wealth but also the security granted by the international community's involvement. Yet, it is equally true that EU integration was considerably delayed by the disastrous economic and social policies of the first ruling party under the presidency of Iliescu.

Economic doldrums

During the past four years, the center-right government of President Emil Constantinescu's Democratic Convention of Romania (CDR), a coalition of six parties, is said to have achieved little in the progression towards EU integration. However, since the collapse of Communism, many things appear to have changed, in particular, human and minority rights and Romania's commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Nonetheless, the economic situation remains precarious. Throughout Constantinescu's four-year term, three prime ministers have succeeded one another, each implementing his own, sometimes divergent, strategies. The results can be summarized in the words of the EC report:

Romania cannot be regarded as a functioning market economy and is not able to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union in the medium term. It has not substantially improved its future economic prospects. (2000 Regular Report from the Commission on Romania's Progress Towards Accession, November 2000)

It is obvious that Romania cannot further develop without international support.

Almost 70% of respondents in a May opinion poll considered EU integration very important for Romania (The Public Opinion Barometer, the Open Society Foundation Romania). Nonetheless, although 93% of Romanian parliamentarians think that integration would have positive effects on the country, 31.9% believe no foreign organization should tell Romanians how to run their own country (according to an October opinion poll, ordered by the Romanian Academic Society).

Nationalist pride

Since 1989, a strong sense of nationalist pride and a belief that Romanians should not be told what to do with their own country has raised many problems. A perfect strategy for populist leaders, it prevented the real privatization of the industrial sector and offered a common public ground for legitimising protectionist measures. Integration remains a desired goal, yet its implications (not only economic) are hardly comprehensible to the masses. This leaves way for a dual interpretation of the accession requirements. They can be used as a scapegoat when things go wrong and as a scarecrow when things are about to slip out of the ruling elite's hands.

A strong sense of Romanian nationalist pride has also raised many problems since 1989. Romanian nationalism rests upon a constructed mythical image of the Romanian people, based on elements such as Latin roots (conferring the status of "inheritors of civilization"), endurance and heroic resistance to hardships of Romania's history and a shared culture, religion and territory. Consequently, outsiders always pose a potential threat to the community, through an unconscious challenge to the status quo.

Of course, integration also means giving up part of state sovereignty. Ruling elites are no longer constrained solely by internal tiers, but also by external pressures and obligations, such as granting minority rights, proving transparency, acknowledging diversity and encouraging economic openness. It is precisely these things that a nationalist wants to prevent to remain in power.

Election fears

Out of electoral fears politicians avoid explaining what the accession requirements really mean. Whilst the masses expect an immediate profit out of the accession procedures. Disillusioned by the dramatic decrease in the standard of living, many Romanians look to the EU as a possible savior that will heal all economic wounds and provide better jobs, salaries and immediate wealth. When it comes to mass dismissals and closing down unproductive plants or to economic measures for reducing inflation, as a means of achieving EU accession targets, the same people block the measures.

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The bureaucratic apparatus, and resistance to change from a large section of the political class double this quasi-ignorant view of integration from the masses. Self-preservation and corruption is enough to purposely slow down the accession process. Yet, at the same time, the aim of becoming part of the EU structure remains a priority on the public agenda.

On 6 November 2000, the EU asked for tangible results in the first one hundred days of the "new" governance after the 26 November general elections. In response, some Romanians got angry and some acknowledged that even the most patient institutions couldn't afford to await the change forever.

Two days later, the report of the European Commission pointed out that Romania, in its current state, will be the last country to accede to the EU, due to its inadequate economic situation. Again, the newspapers noted the poor situation of the country. Only politicians, caught up in the electoral process, grasped this opportunity for more publicity.

Delia Despina Dumitrica, 16 November 2000

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