On 13 October 1999, the European Commission released its Progress Report, setting out its new strategy for the accession of six new countries - Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia (and Malta) - in the "Second Wave" of EU expansion. The Commission established a structured programme for each country, enabling them to play "catch up" with their Central and East European neighbours in the competition to join the "rich man's club" of Europe.
The December Helsinki Summit then finalised individually structured plans tailored for each country's specific needs in their drive for EU membership. Negotiations would begin when there was evidence that each plan was being adhered to and when each country conformed to the criteria laid down by the Copenhagen Agreement (1993). The Copenhagen Agreement stipulates that EU accession can only be achieved when there is: stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; the existence of a functioning market economy; and the ability to take the obligations of membership.
For Romania, the Helsinki Summit was both positive and negative. Although praised for a continued commitment to reform, Romania was criticised for her ineffectual attempts at the reform of childcare institutions and for the lack of a market economy. The European Commission highlighted the fact that childcare is a matter of human rights, and they would not initiate negotiations until this issue was dealt with.
Over the past months, Romania has confronted the problem of childcare and childcare institutions. In March, Romanian Foreign Minister Petre Roman announced to a press conference in London that the issue of childcare was being tackled. He stated that a National Agency for the Protection of Children's Rights had been founded to improve the possibilities for institutionalised children, including the disabled and the sick.
He also stressed that the government were in the process of developing a programme aimed at reducing the number of children in institutions and at improving conditions within the institutions. Part of this programme is to build a reliable, structured and safe foster care system whilst also promoting further alternatives for children.
It is evident that the Romanian government is acknowledging the seriousness of the situation; however, changes cannot happen overnight. Despite the efforts of the government, the Romanian childcare system is fragmented and poorly financed, much of it a relic of the Communist era. Although policies of change and improvement can be enacted, the real benefits may not be witnessed until a new generation of children have passed through the proposed system.
The development of a new system requires the creation of trusted institutions employing professionals trained to deal with diverse circumstances ranging from the every day looking after of children to health and psychological issues. Only a thorough overhaul of the system can raise confidence in and awareness of problems pertaining to the health and future of many homeless or parentless Romanian children.
The Helsinki Summit proposed that negotiations for accession to the EU would begin in the year 2000 but only with those countries who had achieved the Copenhagen criteria. But time is needed for effective changes to be made, so the question of negotiations is still up in the air.
Two weeks ago, Romanian politicians passed their spring budget. An area of particular controversy was the continued "period of austerity" which clearly bypassed Romanian MPs who, instead, claimed a raise in their salaries. The hardship will once again be felt by the public.
In Helsinki the European Commission urged the Romanian authorities to provide adequate and effective budgetary resources to implement structural reform of the childcare institutions. At the same time, they questioned the functioning of the Romanian economy highlighting that it fell short of a market economy. Added economic pressures include: privatisation, particularly of the banking sector, agriculture and industry; tax reform; environmental reform; legal reform; military reform; security reforms, and the list goes on.
All these areas demand financing to a lesser or greater extent. Coupled with demands from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank it is hardly surprising that the Romanian economy is feeling the strain.
Although the Romanian economy is suffering, the government is preparing the next six chapters in their goal for EU admittance. The first set of chapters was introduced in March and concentrated on foreign policy, security, international economic relations, education, professional and youth training, science and research, and small businesses. The second chapter is to be introduced in May and concentrates on commercial issues. For example, consumer and commercial rights, competition, statistics and telecommunications. Rather than slowing the pace of reforms so that the effects on the economy can be measured, reforms are being pushed through with Romanian society having to face the consequences.
As the Romanian economy limps on, the Romanian people bare the brunt of austerity. Public dissatisfaction with the economic climate resounded throughout last year with protest after protest. Surely this is some indication to slow down reform. However, with continual pressure from the EU and other Euro-Atlantic institutions, and from the Romanian government itself as it strives to join the "rich man's club" of Europe, the momentum of economic reform is only ever accelerated. Eventually, as economic constraints become tougher, something will have to give - with general elections due in November, maybe it will be the government.
Despite economic hardships and public dissatisfaction, Romania has managed to rally support in its quest for EU accession. In February of this year, President Emil Constantinescu visited Britain and was followed a month later by Petre Roman. Both politicians were in the UK to promote Anglo-Romanian relations and to advance Romania's prospects for EU membership. The visits were a great success and Britain has not only pledged to encourage investment in Romania but has also pledged to support Romania in her EU bid.
More recently, Pierre Moscovici, the French Minister for European Affairs, affirmed French backing for Romania but raised concerns over environmental problems and conditions for handicapped children suggesting that these were the main obstacles to EU accession.
The Kosovo conflict emphasised the "shatter belt" of Europe and Romania's strategic position in the Balkans. Although Romania's role in the conflict was peaceful, much support was gained as a result of her passive co-operation. The subsequent Stability Pact further highlighted Romania's geographical advantage at the centre of the Balkans promoting her as a focal point for future stability.
Seven months after the Helsinki Summit, much has changed, but the gains and, indeed, the losses stemming from that Summit are only slowly becoming understood. EU integration has many sides, all of which cannot be tackled in one go. Internal and external pressures are pushing through pinpointed reforms with amazing rapidity. However, establishing the shell does not necessarily mean the content will automatically be produced.
Catherine Lovatt, 3 May 2000
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