Romania 10 years after joining EU: is the glass half empty or half full?

Romania, together with the kin and neighbour country Bulgaria, joined the European Union the 1st January 2007.

A great share of Romanian politicians and thinkers consider this date as one of the most important for the history of the country. It signed the beginning of a new era, antithetic to the long Communist dictatorship. Ten years after is possible to sum up the outcome of this big step: how the status of European Member State helped Romanians? What has been the achievements and what the failures or using another point of view, the results not yet achieved? A careful study of Romanian case could help us to better understand not only the difficult path ex-Communist countries have to cross for leave behind their painful past, but also it could represent the litmus test for the European Cohesion Policy effectiveness, and for all the other Structural Funds aimed to balance wealthy and competitiveness across the Union.

Even if Romania was the first Eastern-Central European country to establish official relations with the European Community back in 1974, it was also one of the latest to join the Union. Indeed, the country struggled in encountering the Copenhagen accession criteria, divided in political criteria, economic criteria and the ability to assume obligations of membership (i.e. the legal and institutional framework, called acquis, which the Union deploy for reaching its objectives). Ceaușescu’s dictatorship, ended in 1989, left the country totally drained of resources and with a rampant corruption affecting all society strata. Beside poverty and corruption, both state and society institutions were far to be even considered democratic, with the judicial powers and press strongly controlled by the government. Therefore, the reforms carried out during the transitional period before the accession inside the Union and the further improvements made during these ten years gave back part of the eroded (or simply non-existent) democratic consistency to the Romanian state. Already in 1998 amendments made to the Civil Procedure Code allowed the Justice system to be more effective and rapid in carrying its decisions, while the following step of the decision’s enforcing had been strengthened. However, even if the 1999 Commission Regular Report on Romania’s progress toward annexation declared the country fulfilment of Copenhagen criteria, other several alarming issues still not challenged by any resolving reforms posed serious doubt on the actual readiness of the country to join the Union. At the time of the entrance inside the Union, Romania ranked 89th on the worldwide chart of corruption index, at the same level of Dominican Republic and Iran.

At the same time, the US State Department Report focused on the respect of human rights in Romania, denounced several cases of journalists and editors mistreated and even openly threatened by politicians after their attempt to unmask the powerful system of corruption. On the economic level, at the time of accession Romania and Bulgaria were the poorest countries in Europe, with an annual per capita GDP of 2,700 $, while the same index in Germany amounted to 26,00$. The dreadful gap has been mitigated by the Romanian GDP growth, which was already following an upward pattern but it reached outstanding values subsequently to the entrance inside the Union: in 2007 GDP growth signed a +6.9, while in 2008 it reached the highest growth percentage in all Europe (+8.5). Even if this incredible increase had been temporally halted during the 2009-2010 economic crisis, Romania managed to recover rapidly and regain a positive sign already in 2011, when several other Member States where still dealing with economic depression. However, despite the great dogged improvement of Romanian’s economy, the country is still one of the poorest inside European Union (one of three Romanian is at risk of poverty), surpassed only by Bulgaria.

Thus, both economic and political criteria were hardly reached by the two Easter countries that joined the EU in 2007. However, the timing of the already decided Eastern Enlargement began in 2004, of which Romania and Bulgaria have been the closing members, wasn’t aimed to wait for countries full readiness in joining the EU, the basilar respect of the criteria or the showed intentions to promoted reforms and changes aimed to achieve them was enough.  European Union reputation and external representation could have been deemed by the refusal of let all Europe (as continent) became a Member, mostly during the time when its citizens were asked to believe on a prosperous and solid future of the whole Union, capable to enlarge and spread all along the continent in the name of size power and solidarity, (a month after the European Parliament approval to Romania and Bulgaria entrance, French citizens were called to vote on the European Constitutions Referendum). The result was that Romania, with the joy and the almost general enthusiasm of its citizens became an official European Member States on the 1st of January 2007. Ten years after, a great improvement – mostly on the economic level and living standards – has been achieved. However, despite the success, Romania is still struggling with corruption, political instability and discrimination against minorities and poverty, issues that are starting to corrode Romanians faith in the Union.

Since the 2007 accession, Romanian economy makes great strides. Beside the stunning raise of GDP, also minimum salary grew up from 390 RON (114 Euro) to 1,250 RON (275 Euro). Unemployment touched one of the lowest level in all Europe (6,2%) while STEM and High-Tech sector lived an impressive boom. Thanks to Romanian education system focused on technical knowledge, inherited from the Communist era, and strong telecoms infrastructures, Romania have been able to train a bulk of young and well-educated STEM talents, which could enjoy from the fastest Internet net in all Europe (and the 6th one worldwide).

Romanian start-ups friendly environment makes the countries one of the most attractive in Europe where to start a tech business, while big multinationals are ready to invest in the countries due to the cheap and qualified manpower and operating costs. However, Romania success in ITs is hindered by the deepening of the gap between central and peripheric regions, with rural population earning 22% less than the urban one, and therefore more at risk of poverty and social exclusion. Indeed, if European Structural Funds have permitted such rapid and astonishing modernization of the technological sector, the same is no more valid for agricultural and entrepreneurship sector. EU funds, that during the period 2014-2020 amounts EUR 30.84 billion, are focused on large businesses while the still high level of corruption is preventing self-employers and small entrepreneurs in beneficing form the Eu opportunities, as they lack political connections required to see their business supported. Moreover, on the side of political criteria, Romania couldn’t address efficiently deep-rooted issues such as judicial independence and political corruption. Even if since the entrance inside the Union, the country made some notable progress, like the 2014 establishment of the Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), the real efficiency in controlling and repressing corruption is still below European standards. The latest case involves the 2017 Government adoption of an emergency ordinance aimed to decriminalize major corruption offences. Despite the opposition of both European chiefs and DNA officials, the Parliament approved the ordinance.

Only an unexpected huge masses protests held all along the winter, the biggest since the 1989 Revolution, forced the government to renounce to the ordinance. This episode made it clear that corruption have been just slightly tackled by ten years efforts. However, it also shows that nowadays, after 10 years of European citizenship, Romanians are no more willing to bear government misdeeds. With the European Union behind is back, civil society feel stronger, as rightful protagonist of Romania’s future is imposing its right to see living standards raised and finally leaving behind the shadow of the Communist dictatorship. Therefore, after these ten years, successes are balanced by failures. Economic growth and modernization benefitted mostly urban and upper strata of society, while minorities and countryside population is still struggling with poverty. Corruption and judiciary independence, as the 2017 events showed, are still one of the worst cancers of Romanian society.The citizens deluded expectations, marked a decrease in population support of the Union, from 65% to 52%, even if is still above the European average (36%). The half failure, or the half success, achieved by Romania is an example of the European Union limited power on reshaping a country.

The criteria linked to the Membership acquisition could only indicate the right way but, evidently, this is not enough for push a whole country to step on it. Stable and solid institutions and a powerful civil society are fundamental elements if Romania wants to see successes overcome failures. At the present days, the glass could be seen either half full or half empty; according to the index we consider the most reliable. However, opportunities to step out from the label secondary category Member State are not missing. The first step is to put all efforts in building a strong political and social commitment to the 2019 Council Presidency. Despite the hard challenges ahead (like dealing with the final acts of Brexit) this will be an incredible occasion for Romania to set up European agenda on the interest of the country and show to all Europe that the country is ready to undertake the first-row seat on European affairs. Romania wasn’t probably ready to enter inside the Union, ten years after it must be getting ready to fully exercise its membership, otherwise the glass will continue to remain half empty.