Romania and the European Union

Romania and the European Union

Apr 24, 2021
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Positive Aspects

There is this one stubborn rumor that has taken root in Romania and all of Eastern Europe and describes the ambivalence towards the EU very well: Products in Eastern Europe are supposedly sold with lower quality than in the EU’s Central and Western European member states. Eastern European consumers near the border with e.g. Germany and Austria state they’d buy their groceries in the neighboring countries because the very same products were of higher quality there. Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland took this “perceived truth” as an opportunity to kick off a populist turmoil at the 2017 EU summit, which they partially celebrated as an “Eastern European emancipation”.

But is there any truth to it all?

Indeed, the EU took the allegations very seriously and the Commission asked the Scientific Service to investigate. It made a list of products which represent an average shopping basket and examined 1,400 samples from 19 member states. It turns out: Yes! There actually are discrepancies!

But... different than expected!

Only 9% of the foods examined were marketed identically, while having a different composition. Also these deviations do not follow any geographic pattern: Member states from literally anywhere in Europe were affected, e.g. also Denmark or Italy. The study also found something else: the deviations are rather adjustments to regional taste and not a qualitative difference in any way. If, for example, the use of olive oil is uncommon within a certain country, part of it is replaced with a more neutral taste in a given product , such as sunflower oil, in order to adapt it to that given country’s taste.

So, as we have debunked this myth, we can now turn to the real question: Why is this myth so persistent in Romania too? Why is it told on and on, even though it has long been refuted?

Is it perhaps a symptom of something running much deeper? Are the Romanians struggling with their membership in the EU? How does Romania benefit from joining the EU anyway?

As a “Latin enclave” in the Slavic East, Romania has always felt connected to the West, and the sometimes very populist EU criticism is generally much lower here.

The former President Băsescu said in 2005 about joining the EU: "For us, EU membership is the fulfillment of a dream that is more than half a century old."

And this positive perception still seems unbroken: A clear majority (60%!) of Romanians stated in a 2019 survey that they have a positive view on the EU.

And this is entirely justified!

Hardly any other country has benefited so much from EU membership in the last ten years: since Romania became part of the EU, around 30 billion euros net have been flowing to Bucharest - this corresponds to almost 2% of the Romanian GDP.

The funds were made available both as EU aid and subsidies as well as in form of direct aid and were used in the areas of infrastructure and tourism in order to continue to harmonize living conditions within the EU member states. 

For example, the village of Moisei in the Northern Carpathians was able to build a sewage system including a sewage treatment plant and furthermore ensure the water supply even for remote farms solely on EU funds. And even more important: general accessibility was achieved by paving the streets to these remote farms, as the previously existing “trails” were partly only passable by horse-drawn carriage and sometimes, after heavy rain, almost no longer passable at all. Mayor Şteţcu brought a total of 8 million euros in EU funding to the village.

But the way in which a state benefits from EU membership is more complex than just “cash from Brussels”.

For starters, an example that affects just about every one of us: the elimination of roaming charges and falling costs for electronics.

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However, access to the European domestic market also has other direct effects on employment and growth: the Community regulations on products sold to the European market open up access to this very market. In this way, companies can serve a larger market with the same effort and work much more efficiently, which in turn creates jobs. This easier access to the EU market was a major advantage especially for Romania, which is heavily dependent on imports and exports. This is also reflected in Romania's gross domestic product, which, according to Eurostat, rose from 34% to 64% of the EU average. This is mainly thanks to the stimulation of foreign trade within the EU, which now accounts for almost three quarters of Romania's foreign trade.

At the same time, employees also have the opportunity to work in other EU countries without any problems (if you want to find out more about the subject of personal freedom of movement within the EU, you can read our article about it here, which we also wrote for Volt Country Month).

Across the EU, real income has increased over the past six years - albeit at different rates. This is also called the “elevator effect”: what member states have in common is that they move upwards equally. But they start from different levels.

It follows as this: Everyone gets some more, but the ratio does not change. When you step into a paternoster, it does not matter how many floors you have already “climbed” - the ones that have stepped in some floors higher up are still above you. And that distorts the perception of your own progress, feeling that you can never really catch up.

Of course - where there is light, there is also shadows. And EU membership has certainly not only brought advantages - especially not to all Romanians equally.

Negative Aspects

We tend to draw a border that is de facto non-existent, but still present within the personal perception and it’s sretching right through the middle of Europe - here the west, there the east. However, the actual border does not run between countries, but between population groups. Some benefit significantly more from the membership in the EU than others.

How can the thousands of unemployed people, after the almost complete collapse of Romanian heavy industry, be made aware of the great advantages of EU membership? How do you explain this to the good people from the village of Secu, who have no asphalt roads, no sewers, while the mayor had seven kilometers of dirt road asphalted with € 400,000 from EU funds, for sure purely by chance right next to his own arable land?

The border also runs between cities and countryside - between the high-tech centers, where well-known global corporations offer young IT specialists completely new development opportunities, and the small farms, disconnected from any kind of progress and from where young people flee towards the high-tech centers to become IT specialists at well-known global corporations.

Yes, the EU offers great funding programs, we showed you a few wonderful success stories in the last part. But for many Romanians, especially those from an uneducated background, these resources are merely inaccessible. Not only is the application process difficult to manage for the vast majority - especially regarding the complexity of the documents. Many Romanians, especially from remote, rural areas, may in theory have internet access, but no computers or smartphones, the next larger administrative authorities are far away - just getting the information of the sheer existence of such fundings being available to them could be considered a small miracle in these cases. To make matters worse, the requirement for receiving EU funding is often tied to the use or at least an advance payment out of one's own capital, which is often simply not available.

(We already mentioned this in our article about Romanian agriculture, which you can read again here)

Some potential applicants are simply afraid of making a mistake when submitting the application. In case of the event of the subsequent withdrawal of funding due to a mistake, all the financial reserves that may have been advanced might be lost and you would end up with a huge pile of debt or even on the verge of ruin.

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In the article about Romanian agriculture, we also told you about the problematic displacement of small farmers, which in some points can also be attributed to EU membership. Although Romania gained great advantages from the open European internal market, all other member states also have these advantages, which in turn creates unfavorable situations for Romanian smallholders: all over the country, more and more western supermarkets and retail chains such as Carrefour or Penny are opening new branches. While it is very convenient for average consumers, because now all shopping can be done relatively cheaply in one single place, for more and more self-sufficient smallholder farmers, selling their surplus of agricultural products for extra income on the local markets, the consequences result in an ever degrading sale of their products. In order to be able to offer the huge quantities of agricultural products of the constant quality necessary to step into negotiations with the supermarkets, small farmers would have to join forces and form cooperatives. However, this is hardly possible in Romania. Owing to the trauma that emerged from the communist past and still lasting to this day, Romanians are extremely skeptical, almost hostile, towards collectivistically organized communities.

Another obstacle to taking full advantage of EU membership in Romania is the ubiquitous issue of corruption and political arbitrariness. According to Transparency International corruption has remained high for years in Romania, and until the party of PSD had stepped back last year, the government had, at its own discretion, often issued urgent regulations overnight to change the tax system or social security contributions - an absolutely deadly climate for investors who are hardly as dependent on anything as reliability and political stability. Confidence has to be regained, but it will take time and investors are sure to scrutinize any political move in Romania.

Romania has to do a major balancing act. Its balancing act does not take place at the gym, but in the discrepancy between the attempt, indeed the unconditional will of European integration on the one hand and the preservation of its own traditions on the other. When in doubt, the Romanian soul gives priority to tradition. This eternal teacher-student relationship between the EU and Romania is more of a hindrance than helpful, considering the historical background because of which Romania, like most of the Eastern European, ex-communist EU member states, is understandably very sensitive to outside determination. Decades after the conquest of communism, in which Romania played an essential role, one would like to come face to face with “the West” at some point.

For the Romanians, joining the EU was the fulfillment of a great dream. And yes, despite some obstacles, annoyances and disadvantages, the EU is a great gift, not only for Romania, but for all its members - east and west alike.

For Romania, this gift came very suddenly, given the incredibly fast-moving historical timescale. Only yesterday we overthrew the dictator, today already a member of the EU! At a certain point, however, the question arises: How much change can a society withstand in such a short time?

How we at Volt generally approach the EU shouldn't be a secret. But we, as convinced Europeans, do not turn a blind eye on the problems that have to be mastered and solved.

Volt's Point of View

After having examined the current situation and the underlying relationship from both sides, we are now considering how to increase the advantages and diminish the disadvantages. Because we are Volt, our political program is both national and pan-European. We are here to create a leveled playing field for all citizens across Europe - today we want to address a few of our proposals to help achieve this goal.

The first thing we must understand is that if the EU is doing well, its member states are doing well, and vice versa. Instead of acting on our own, we should stick together and tackle the challenges of the present as a union, not only pushing our own national interests with all our might, not losing sight of the common good of the European Union. We must never stop pointing out mistakes and problems and continue working to eliminate them, but we, and above all the politicians, must finally stop using the EU as a scapegoat for all conceivable homemade problems. We as EU citizens have to learn and understand how the EU works in order to be able to recognize this.

The best place to convey this understanding is in educational institutions. The European Union and what it actually is must become an integral part of the curriculum in every classroom, including modern simulation projects and workshops, and not just treated as a marginal topic. This is the only way to create awareness at an early stage of how the EU works and what we can, may and must expect from it. The generations who grow up aware of being part of a large, stable community will also get back to that knowledge later: they will be motivated to spend an Erasmus year in another European country during their studies, to exchange cultural ideas, to bring what they have learned back to Romania, become aware of the advantages of EU membership when setting up a company to strengthen it actively. And as elected representatives, they will know that you can apply for EU funding for a large number of projects that will directly benefit the citizens.

Another important component is the fight against corruption, among other things with the resources of an intelligent state and radical transparency. As long as there is a risk that subsidies will be given on the basis of nepotism and bribes, or if funds intended for the general public are misused for private purposes, the whole system will be damaged, while a handful will benefit illegally in the short term. To this end, both the national and the European anti-corruption authorities must be strengthened and expanded. In addition, public sector income and expenditure must be visible to everyone, and corruption in the public sector must not only be severely punished, but also consistently pursued. But a change in mind must also take place in society! While it may seem easy and tempting at first to pay a small “special fee” in order to get to your goal faster, one must always be aware that this has negative effects on society as a whole and ultimately also for oneself. Corruption is a game of power with marked cards, played at the back of society. The positive news is that we can get up and leave the table at any time. If no one participates, it's game over for corruption.

The elimination of corruption will create more trust in public institutions, provide a more secure sense of justice for entrepreneurs and thus stimulate the economy - both for Romanian startups and for those international investors who are currently still suspicious of activities in Romania.

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In order to make all the advantages of EU membership accessible to Romanian citizens, other elements of the Intelligent State that we propagate are used, e.g. the Internet as a fundamental right. A general right of access to the Internet would mean that information would also be available in the furthest corners of the country, including in villages and on remote farms too far away from authorities who could offer in-depth advice on EU issues, among others relevant information on European projects and funding that would benefit local citizens. To do this, this information would of course also have to be available in a form that is easy to understand and clear. In order to achieve this, Volt would like to promote the service mentality of all authorities across Europe. If our idea of ​​the complete digitization of all authorities is fulfilled and personal interaction at the office counter is no longer necessary, urgently needed capacities will be freed up in the authorities, which can be used to expand the service, e.g. also for well-founded advice in the area of ​​EU law .

Another important step in making the benefits of the EU available to all citizens is the promotion of cooperatives. Yes, we know that a lot of Romanians have a hard time with this. But as is so often the case, work starts at the grassroots. If people get enough information and understand the huge benefits of making it extremely easy to set up a cooperative, many will at least consider it. This would have an significant advantage, not only in the agricultural sector, where negotiations with retail chains can only be entered with the corresponding production quantities. Other areas can also benefit from this. A simple example: Romania is incredibly rich in beautiful handicrafts and offers an extraordinary variety of homemade canned products - this might sound irrelevant at first glance, but homemade products and fermented vegetables are exactly two things that are extremely trendy in Europe and around the world at this very moment! Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the Romanian small-scale producers are jumping on the bandwagon. As long as no one supports the establishment of cooperations - both by providing information and finances - and significantly facilitates the process, many products will only be offered locally to a limited extent, while in times of crisis, such as the current COVID pandemic, the tourist sales market will also disappear. As a cooperative, which can sell products across Europe much more easily and in larger quantities, a solid infrastructure for the online sales market can be established, which individual artisans or mini-businesses are often not able to do on their own. Within a cooperative, they will achieve a  much better position even in times of crisis. In addition, the prospect of a strong, regional brand with an international sales market would also ensure the offspring for traditional businesses, e.g. for small traditional handicrafts.

There are still so many measures that could be introduced here that are also part of our political demands, but I think the basic message has already become clear: the path to uniform basic conditions for all European citizens begins with the knowledge and the will of politicians to clearly communicate the advantages of EU membership and to make them equally accessible to everyone.

This does not only apply to equality in access to the European internal market or to EU subsidies, it can be expanded as required: to medical care, a uniform level of education, harmonized tax systems and so on.

Only in this way can we work together for a better Europe, with equal opportunities for all citizens, regardless of the member state.