A new year has truly started for Romania. Last year, on December 13th, the Romanians surprisingly elected Traian Basescu, mayor of Bucharest and leader of the Romanian Democratic Party (centre-right), as President. That day the city threw off their usual dusty, grey clothes and rediscovered their bright orange ones – the same colour, as fate would have it, as the democratic opposition in the Ukraine. They poured out joyfully into the streets, eventually filling the entire piazza in front of the enormous Palace of the People, the disturbing symbol of Nicolae Ceausescu’s former communist regime. The new centre-right government, led by the 40 year-old liberal economist Calin Popescu Tariceanu, signals a turning point after the era of social democratic government which started at the end of Communism in 1989 and was interrupted only by the period 1996-2000 (which brought to power a centre-right coalition similar to Tariceanu’s current government). The new government, composed of representatives from the Centre-Right Alliance for Justice and Truth and two minor parties, the Hungarian Union and the Humanitarian Party, is following the trend typical of eastern countries by making room for a new ruling class of people under 40, including the 30 year-old Foreign Minister, Razvan Ungureanu.
Can Romania “arm wrestle” its way into the EU by 2007?
The real turning point for Romania, however, will come when they finally and definitively cross the threshold into the European Union with full membership. It is with this vision that Basescu, nicknamed Popeye due to his past as a captain, wants to move Romania towards accession, as expected, by 1st January 2007. But it won’t be easy. The threat of the ‘safeguard clause’, which Brussels could apply if the country does not implement the negotiated reforms, weighs heavily on Bucharest as it would delay accession by a year. Indeed, on 17th December last year, the European Council in Brussels set Romania’s (like Bulgaria’s) accession for 2007 but underlined the need for change. Corruption, in particular, remains one of the country’s biggest problems, as well as the alarming human rights violations in prisons, police stations and psychiatric hospitals. Life hasn’t been easy for the media either and the European Parliament has pushed Romania to fully and effectively enforce laws regarding the freedom of the press. Another problem is that of controlling illegal immigration; Bucharest is already responsible for the external border of Nato but will also be responsible for preventing an influx of people from Serbia, Moldova and the Ukraine into the European Union. Even the presidential elections, which were tainted by numerous accusations of fraud during the first stage, prove that Romania still has some way to go.
“We have to succeed, we have no alternative”
However, Romanians have chosen to believe in change and they did choose Basescu, who based his whole campaign on eliminating corruption to “set the state institutions free from the dictatorship of the political world”. Once elected, Basescu assured “that the Romanian press will again be free and independent.” Economically, moreover, the new government surprised everyone by introducing fiscal cuts at the end of January which had been promised during the election campaign. From now on, profit and income tax will have a single rate of 16%: certainly a good start to help negotiations with the EU. But what does the Romanian public think of the European Union? Accession is a theme that has often been used by previous governments to pass laws and constitutional reforms, which had nothing to do with Europe. The majority of the population believe that entry into the EU will bring a wage rise (currently 190 euros a month on average) and a miraculous change to their standard of living. But young people have understood that there are many sacrifices to make. “We are certainly in Europe, geographically speaking. But it is absolutely essential that we are now part of it politically” said Daina, an 18 year-old student of Political Science in Bucharest. She added, in perfect English, “We young people believe we can give and receive a lot by entering the EU, we want to study in other European countries as well as our neighbours’”
Adrian, a 24 year-old Economics student and part-time worker insists that “realistically it will be difficult to achieve the socio-economic standards required by Europe but I believe that we can succeed. We have to succeed, we have no alternative.” Europe will wait and see and reserves the right to postpone Bucharest’s entry until 2008. Meanwhile, on the 15th December the commissioner for enlargement, Olli Rehn, warned that “there is still a lot to do for Romania to became a true member state by 2007.” Will the willingness of Basescu and the passion of Daina and Adrian be enough?