Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Guardian Unlimited: Acceding expectations

Acceding expectations

On January 1, Romania will join the European Union. Matthew Tempest went to Sibiu in the Carpathian mountains to see if the former communist state is ready to join Brussels - and whether the EU is ready for Romania.
Listen to Matthew Tempest's podcast from Romania here (8 mins, 44s)
Tuesday November 21, 2006Guardian Unlimited


There is a joke Romanians tell about themselves: "What is small, dark, and knocking at the door?"
Answer: "...The future!"

It reflects their fatalistic but ebullient national psyche. Come new year's day 2007, less than six weeks away, that future consists of the joining the European Union. Along with its Black Sea neighbour, Bulgaria, they become the 26th and 27th members of the EU, completing the old "Warsaw pact" expansion of 2004.
Romania, in particular, will be hard to ignore. It becomes the 8th largest EU member but also (according to most economists) the poorest. National salaries are just 16% of the EU average, while GDP - although growing dramatically - is still only 32% of that in the existing 25 members.
The Romanians also have some negative stereotypes to overcome. Although not thought to be as corrupt as neighbouring Bulgaria, the EU has placed a series of safety clauses into both their accession treaties.
Last month the first choice candidate to become the country's EU commissioner, Varujan Vosganian, had to stand down, seen as too close to both the secret police of the Ceaucescu regime and the big businessmen close to government in the 1990s.
Britain has unilaterally and belatedly imposed sweeping restrictions on the free movement of labour from Romania, reacting to fears that the impoverished Romanians will undercut even the current crop of immigrant workers from Poland and the other accession countries. Not to mention tabloid fears of a "Gyspy crimewave".
On top of that, this country of 22 million people recently suffered the indignity of appearing in the film "Borat", standing in for the supposedly racist, sexist, anti-semitic, feudal peasant society of Kazakhstan.

Mihai Neamtu, the chancellor of Sibiu university, takes issue with foreign perceptions of Romania. Referring to the recent decision by John Reid to bar most unskilled workers from his country, Mr Neamtu said: "The images created by the Sun were very apocalyptic. They are meant to frighten everyone. Anyone can see for themselves that Romania is not this way - we are as European as you are, and have been for 2,000 years."
"We have a criminal justice system that punishes people. And I don't believe either will be an exodus from Romania [next year] because there will be more opportunities and job prospects here."

Indeed, Romania's economy, from a low starting point, is already booming, notching annual growth of around 6%. A flat tax of 16%, combined with cut-price labour, is luring in foreign companies.
Outside the tiny one-room building that is Sibiu airport, in the centre of the country, stand gleaming new factories for Siemens and Peugeot. This is the "western zone", so designated for light industry by the city authorities.
Even the airport itself - which has direct flights only to Munich and Vienna, plus the capital Bucharest - is being razed. Construction workers are busy on a new airport complex, better suited to the needs of hoped-for tourists and businessmen.

The Austrian boss of Siemens, Norbert Bakic, has a Romanian workforce of 255, up from 170 just two years ago. However, he admits some problems in recruitment. Only one in five applicants pass all the medical and educational tests.
Poor eyesight - necessary for the intricate work on semiconducters - caused by vitamin deficiencies in the Romanian diet is one factor, he reveals. Fruit was a rarity under the communist regime, and seems little more prevalent now.
To the first-time visitor to Romania, eating at all seems to be a distraction from the national addiction to cigarettes. Posters for tobacco dominate the streetscape and no-smoking areas of restaurants are unheard-of. Male life expectancy is just 68.
Perhaps just as significantly, workers at the plant are prevented from forming trade unions. Instead, the management appoints representatives to voice the concerns of workers.

Professor Eugen von Iterbeek, a literature lecturer at Sibiu University, sees dangers in this form of rampant economic growth. "There is a danger that this foreign investment will become a new form of colonialism.
"The Balkans and our country will become a new Latin America, a Mexico, a zone of cheap labour. Twenty kilometres outside Sibiu there is real, terrible poverty."
"We need the EU to be more than just an economic union, but need to see more and more cultural and social integration to tackle the real poverty here."
The professor would like to see the 12 accession countries - Romania and Bulgaria plus the 10 that entered in 2004 - hold their own regional meetings within the EU to address their particular problems.
And he warns: "Half a century of communism you cannot eliminate in 15 years. You need three generations - at least."

One of the groups with perhaps the most to gain from the EU's insistence on human rights and protection for minorities is Romania's Gypsy population, the Roma.
Persecuted or simply facing prejudice for centuries, the estimated number of Roma in the country varies from 530,000 - the government's official tally - to the 3 million claimed by the self-styled "King of the Roma", Florin Cioaba.
The real figure probably lies somewhere between those extremes, but with few within the highly self-contained Roma community possessing birth certificates or ID cards, a true number is probably unknowable.

According to Mr Cioaba, "When Romania joins the EU, both Romania and the Roma will have a better life.
"The EU and the World Bank will help with funds for jobs, housing and qualifications," he says, optimistically.
"Under [EU Commission president José Manuel] Barosso, all minorities are guaranteed equality under the European Union.
"Before 1990 under communism we were not allowed to organise, or to have newspapers. Now we have our own TV show, and a small Roma parliament - this was supported by the Finnish EU presidency, under Mr Barosso."
But although many of the Roma now settle in small geographical areas, they bring with them other social problems for which the EU is also expected to deal with.

The "Gypsy Mothers Unit" at Sibiu county hospital, has received 18,500 euros from Brussels. It helps 500-600 Roma girls a year, either with advice and supplies on contraception and family planning, neo-natal support and post-natal care.
They claim a success rate of 45% in getting the Roma girls, frequently aged just 12-14 years old, to take contraception. With a significant problem of incest within the Roma community - which is deeply patriarchal - they also attempt to deal with the problem of the girls abandoning babies born out of father/daughter relationships.

Mirala Olteanua, a 32-year-old lawyer who gave up her more lucrative legal career to be the unit's director, admits that for the first three weeks after the centre opened, not one Roma mother would attend - such was the distrust of formal institutions. "Don't tell them bullshit, don't change their minds," she was told by the Roma men.
"Now this year for the first time since we were founded in 2001 we have had zero abandonment of babies. Most of the babies that do get abandoned end up in orphanages, where they are later diagnosed with disabilities or other medical problems."

Ms Olteanua is also hoping for more EU funds to continue her unit's work after accession next year.
Romania also seeks to stand on its own feet in other ways. Tourism is the principal means by which the country hopes to lure in affluent westerners. At present the Carpathian mountains are one of the most unspoilt hiking and skiing parts of Europe. Increased ease of access, and joining the single currency (expected sometime around 2013) should boost that.
But even there, in remote villages where the principle mode of transport is still the horse and cart, and roadside stalls sell potatoes and milk, the Romanians have a long way to go in adapting. Rubbish and plastic waste is casually dumped in picturesque streams and valleys - something which Brussels will surely frown on.

But tourism, alongside cheap labour for foreign-owned electronics, automotive and garment industries, appears to be Romania's best gamble.
Sibiu itself will celebrate the EU accession by being named European City of Culture 2007- in recognition of its historic medieval town centre, now being restored by a German-led team of architects.

In a symbolic tableaux, across the town square in Sibiu from the concrete, communist-era, "Continental" hotel, a 20-storey glass and steel "Ramada Inn" is rapidly rising.
Both hotels will look over the scene of fireworks and partying on new year's eve. But with Brussels fretting over future candidate countries, from Turkey to Croatia to the western Balkans, the sound of celebrations in Romania could also be the sound of the door shutting on future EU expansion.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/eu/story/0,,1952841,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=1

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