Newest EU citizens wonder what it will mean

Newest EU citizens wonder what it will mean

The New York Times

BUCHAREST — For the past four years, at a fictional bar called La Europa, Romanian villagers have discussed, argued and wisecracked about their future in the European Union, trying to come to terms with European standards like the length and curvature specifications for cucumbers.

Their adventures are broadcast into Romanian living rooms from the Bucharest set of a popular Sunday sitcom, “The Winding Road to Europe.”

Half an hour away, in Vidra, the village where the opening sequence of the show was filmed, regulars at a real bar called Mona’s were sitting on small stools at plastic tables on a recent evening, wearing winter clothes in the unheated room and drinking beer and tuica, a strong grape brandy.

Just days before their country’s accession Jan. 1, no one there was sure what EU membership would mean — but then, no one had tried to find out.

“Everyone says it will be bad because we don’t have the conditions the EU requires, like money for packaging equipment,” said Florica Stoian, 48, a vegetable farmer with a black knit cap. “So we won’t be able to sell our tomatoes anymore.”

His drinking partner, Nicu Georgescu, 39, said that EU subsidies would be a big help for his small farm but that he had not tried to learn how to get them. “The rumors say you need to have good connections,” he said.

Their friend Paul Neagu, 65, a tractor driver, said he was most concerned that he would not be able to slaughter his pigs in the “traditional Romanian way.” He used his index finger to make a slicing motion across his neck.

Like the sitcom villagers, these Romanians and many others may feel a sense of achievement at having joined the EU, yet few know what it will mean.

Their country, isolated and totalitarian under Nicolae Ceausescu, has come far since the collapse of communism in 1989, with fundamental changes to the organization of society, the economy and the political system, and serious efforts to combat corruption.

But as Romania enters an expanded EU of 27 nations, much remains to be done. With accession, said Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a political analyst, Romanians will no longer be able to blame history and geopolitics for their problems. “For the first time,” she said, “Romanians will have to accept responsibility for themselves.”

For Europeans, Romania represents the bloc’s furthest thrust eastward. Its 22 million citizens are the largest population to enter the union since Poland joined three years ago; Romania’s accession expands the external EU border by 1,682 kilometers, or 1,045 miles, along Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia and the Black Sea.

Economically, Romania is the least developed EU member state, with widespread poverty and an undeveloped infrastructure. Of the active population, 32 percent work in agriculture, compared with 4 percent among the EU’s 25 members before Romanian and Bulgarian accession Monday.

Only about one-third of Romanians have traveled outside Romania, and even many who have now gone abroad had never previously been more than 30 kilometers from their villages, according to Vintila Mihailescu, director of the Museum of the Romanian Peasant and an anthropologist who has studied peasants for 30 years.

One positive aspect of membership, Mihailescu said, will be the freedom for young people to travel easily to and from Romania — an improvement in both administrative and psychological terms.

He said he was troubled, however, by the lack of debate in the country. “We don’t really know deeply about what is happening with our society during these last 15 years,” Mihailescu said from his desk in a palatial brick edifice built in 1906 to house the national art gallery. “Romanian society is better than we think, but no one knows it.”

No individual embodies the institutional changes in Romania more than Monica Macovei, a human rights lawyer who became justice minister two years ago. She is popular with the public as a stateswoman with a soft voice and an iron will, is politically unaffiliated, and has succeeded in reforming the judicial system and institutionalizing anti-corruption measures.

The changes she has introduced have led to the indictment of 8 members of Parliament, 2 serving government ministers, a former prime minister, 9 judges and prosecutors, and 70 to 80 police and customs officers. Public officials are now screened for past cooperation with the secret police, and detailed statements of their assets are published on the Web pages of state institutions.

Macovei said that Romanian institutions were ready for the EU but that the Romanian public would need time to develop trust. People “don’t believe in promises,” she said. “They need to see real cases.”

But for many Romanians, the revolution — Eastern Europe’s bloodiest — meant enormous sacrifice. About 1,000 Romanian protesters lost their lives.

At the Heroic Martyrs of the Revolution Cemetery in Bucharest on a recent Sunday, Maria Bara was caring for the grave of her son Petru Sofer, who died at 25, just as she has every Sunday for 17 years.

He was shot by Securitate forces through an artery in the thigh and bled to death in an ambulance before it could reach a hospital. The streets were clogged by people and chaos.

“Now there is freedom of speech, and you can curse the ones in power,” she said. “But what does that matter if there is no work?”

Across town, at the flashy City Mall, young people consume the same fast food and movies and buy the same brands as their peers in the West. Yet despite appearances, this young consumer generation — the apparent beneficiary of the changes the EU has already brought and will continue to bring to Romania — is hardly carefree.

The young people here say they are typical of all young Romanians in that they must consider emigrating, whether they want to or not.

“I am at the top of my class,” said Sandra Putere, 22, a medical student at Bucharest University. She said her salary would be €100, or about $130, when she finished.

In order to find work in Romania, she added, “I have to pay a bribe of €20,000 for a job with ‘extras,'” referring to the extra fees doctors sometimes receive for services that are supposed to be free. “The changes will be far away for me.”

Back on the set of the bar called La Europa, producers said they had chosen that setting because research had shown that Romanians learned more about the EU in bars than anywhere else. With accession a reality, they said, “The Winding Road to Europe” will now focus on how the new system works.

One problem facing Romanians is that “everyone is expecting someone to inform them, but no one knows how to ask questions,” said Mihai Alecsandrescu, a producer.

Gabriel Giurgiu, who helped develop the show, said: “People tend to look at Brussels as a Santa Claus who will come to give everyone money and jobs, or as a source of inexhaustible political wisdom that will get rid of all the corrupt politicians. And this is really concerning.”

While fully supporting Romania’s membership, the show has poked hard at the EU because the producers want Romanians to be realistic.

Regarding news that an Italian medical recruiter had come to Romania announcing that Italy needed 75,000 medical workers, Alecsandrescu said, “We’ll have a show about how hard it is to find a nurse.”

Giurgiu added, “When I read in the British papers about the cheap Polish plumbers, I worry about how much I will have to pay for a plumber here.”

And what of the sitcom characters, now that the country has joined the EU?

Like real Romanians, “the people in the village are happy, but not excited,” Alecsandrescu said. “There is a big difference.”

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