Vol 2, No 5
7 February 2000
M I O R I Ţ A:
Those who have visited the Romanian visa office in London will remember the greenhouse type cabin, located at the end of a garden path, behind the dominating embassy building. Invariably it is raining. The sound of the water lashes on the roof and windows. After half an hour of waiting you realise that you have forgotten the small passport photograph that needs to accompany your documentation. So you head to High Street Kensington tube and return with the photographs to a now closed visa office. For many British nationals this is their first small taste of Romania.
The European Union proposal to remove Romania from the "visa list" will enable Romanian nationals to travel, without a visa, to EU member states. It therefore seems likely that visa requirements for EU members to enter Romania will shortly become a thing of the past. The small garden cabin will no longer be the first step into Romania for many of those travelling from Britain.
Amid a week of protests from blue- and white-collar workers, the EU proposal is a positive sign for Romania, marking a leap forward in her accession prospects. The EU has already removed visa restrictions for other East European candidate countries but was reluctant to do so for Romania and her neighbour, Bulgaria, due to security concerns and weak border controls. Romania and Bulgaria have been working together to improve security and to fight international crime, joining the Southeast European Security Initiative (SECI) last year. To a large extent both countries have been successful in combating cross-border crime. In 1999 Romania united their border police into one force and have reported the seizure of 17 tonnes of drugs, 150 kg of explosives and have arrested many illegal emigrants travelling to the West (Reuters, 26 January 2000).
The final decision on visa restrictions lies with the 15 EU governments and the European parliament. If they are accepted as EU members, Romania and Bulgaria would provide protection on the external borders of the Union. Strict and effective security controls are a necessary precondition to being accepted as members. However, the European Commission has reported an imbalance between the advancements of Bulgaria and Romania. Guenter Verheugen, the EU commissioner for enlargement, suggested that some member states may not accept removing visa restrictions especially in relation to Romania. He said "It has to be conceded that Bulgaria in recent years has made substantial progress with falsified documents and border controls. With Romania it is quite clear that such improvements in the frontier situation have not occurred to the extent that they have in Bulgaria." (Reuters, 25 January 2000). Despite such suggestions the proposal offers a move towards the ultimate foreign policy goal of achieving EU integration.
Politically, the EU recommendation can be considered a success in foreign policy and domestic developments. However, the success is countered by internal civil uneasiness. In 1999, there were strikes and protests in all sectors of society, most notably the miners and the railway workers. The year 2000 is beginning with a similar trend. Last week both the teachers and the railway workers protested against poor living conditions and pay. The transitional process and the push for EU integration have brought severe economic strains and hardships on Romanian society. The longer the hardships continue the more people openly protest about their situation. Consequently, a conflict has arisen between the demands of collective society and the aspirations of the politicians.
Although the immediate social, economic and political conditions are relatively unstable the long term benefits from working towards transition and EU integration outweigh short term hostilities. Being accepted as a member of the European Union would open up a vast economic market and push Romania further ahead. Lifting visa restrictions would be one step towards this goal. Not only would it enhance business relations and tourism but the image of a more secure Romania would encourage investment in Romania itself. The fact that Romania is being considered in the proposal indicates that progress is being made. Evidence of improvements may not yet be noticed at a social level but developments are occurring. Nonetheless, until real improvements are felt within society civil uncertainty will continue.
Mugur Isărescu, the Romanian Prime Minister, has called upon Romanians to halt the protests and accept the hardships resulting from necessary reforms. In response to the nationwide strikes by teachers and railway workers he commented: "By intensifying social pressure one does nothing but ask the government to spend money irresponsibly. Protests can't bring in extra revenues." (Reuters, 25 January 2000). Succumbing to social pressures would ultimately delay or destroy the opportunity with which Romania has been presented. As Isărescu has said: "We don't have the right to miss the chance Romania has got by being invited to start accession talks." (Reuters, 25 January 2000).
Despite civil uneasiness and economic frailty, Romania has made a leap forward in her EU accession prospects. Tighter security and border controls have pushed Romania ahead and she is now recognised by Europe as a potential secure boundary between the EU and Russia. The removal of visa restrictions would enhance Romania's economic position and open the doors to a wider market, allowing freedom of movement between countries. However, uncertainty over Romanian attempts to reduce cross-border crime exists and could act as a barrier for EU acceptance of the visa proposals. Although the recommendations offer an indication of developments in domestic and foreign policy, Romanian society is not yet feeling the benefits. The disillusionment of society is marked by protest and demonstration. Short term demands are conflicting with long term aspirations for the development and stability of the country. Nonetheless, progress is being made and opportunities are arising for Romania to steadily integrate into the European Union.
Catherine Lovatt, 2 February 2000
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