Romania Pushes to Be Treated as a Fully Fledged E.U. Member

By Steven Erlanger


ImageRomanians waving the European Union flag during a European Parliament elections rally in Bucharest in May.
Romanians waving the European Union flag during a European Parliament elections rally in Bucharest in May.CreditCreditVadim Ghirda/Associated Press

BUCHAREST, Romania — More than 12 years after joining the European Union, Romanians are getting increasingly grumpy.

Romania pulled off a successful six-month presidency of the European Union, its first time in that role, and has made considerable progress integrating into Europe. Romanian officials have important jobs in Brussels, including Mircea Geoana, who was just named deputy secretary general of NATO, the first person from the old Eastern Bloc to have the job.

But many in Romania and Bulgaria, which both joined the European Union in 2007, feel that they remain under probation, as second-class citizens. They have not been allowed to join the Schengen zone of passport-free travel, and they are still under a special program to monitor corruption.

Romanians acknowledge continuing problems with corruption and oligarchy — after all, the man once considered to be the most powerful politician in the country, Liviu Dragnea, the head of the largest party, the Social Democrats, is serving a prison term for abuse of power.

But they argue that Romania is making considerable progress and that admission to the Schengen zone shouldn’t hinge on the corruption problems.

The country has long borders, but it has invested heavily in protecting them, and Romanians tend to think that they have as much right to be part of the passport-free area as Schengen members like Hungary, which has similar problems with corruption and is seen as a bigger violator of the rule of law, not to mention Norway and Iceland, which are not even members of the European Union.

Romania and Bulgaria were judged by the European Commission to have met all necessary technical conditions for full Schengen membership as far back as 2011. No other countries considered to have met the criteria have been kept out.

“We see it as discrimination,” George Ciamba, the Romanian minister for European affairs, said in an interview. “We showed solidarity during the migration crisis and took people from boats in Malta, and we expect this solidarity to be returned.”

But the migration crisis has complicated matters, he said, noting that, “Political correctness now means you can be tougher on fellow Europeans.”

ImageLiviu Dragnea, the head of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, who is serving a prison term for abuse of power.
Liviu Dragnea, the head of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, who is serving a prison term for abuse of power.CreditRobert Ghement/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Geoana, the NATO deputy secretary general and a former foreign minister, calls the Schengen matter “a deeply political issue,” laced with prejudice. Excluding Romania “is not only unfair but illogical — the routes of migration are not across Romania,” he said. The country has successfully protected its borders, he added, having blocked much of the smuggling between the Russian and Italian mafias.

The problem goes deeper, Mr. Geoana said: “It’s associated with the Roma and Romanians in Europe. There is prejudice here, and it harms us. With three to four million Romanians working abroad, you need a scapegoat.”

Many of those workers are young, well-educated Romanians seeking a better life elsewhere in Europe. They send money home — an important contribution — but as the economy improves, officials express hope that the need for a better-trained labor force and a low unemployment rate will entice people to return.

Still, Romania has been a political mess for several years. A deadly nightclub fire in 2015 that prompted huge demonstrations brought down one government, and protests reignited in the face of institutional corruption and what many saw as efforts to undermine the judiciary, including the firing of Laura Codruta Kovesi, chief prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate, in July 2018. Then came the fall of Mr. Dragnea and, later, the collapse of the coalition government. Now Ms. Kovesi is expected to become the bloc’s first chief public prosecutor, over the objections of her own government.

All this has had an inevitable impact in Brussels, even if European officials have noted the rise of younger, more liberal, pro-European politicians who did well in European elections in May. That vote saw support for the Social Democrats to fall by nearly half, and the rise of an alliance of two new parties, the Save Romania Union and Plus, which was founded by a former European commissioner, Dacian Ciolos. Presidential elections in November are expected to be closely fought.

Prime Minister Viorica Dancila has also complained about the special monitoring of corruption and judicial reform carried out by the European Commission on Romania and Bulgaria, known as the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. Other relatively new members of the European Union, such as Croatia, are not submitted to such oversight.

“If the C.V.M. would be valid for all member states then I wouldn’t be speaking about a double standard,’’ Ms. Dancila told the British newspaper The Guardian in July.

Mr. Ciamba, the minister for European affairs, echoed those sentiments. “We don’t have problems with rules so long as they apply to all,” he said.

The special monitoring was supposed to be a transitional measure, but it remains in place 12 years after Romania and Bulgaria joined the bloc.

However, commenting on the latest C.V.M. report, in November, Frans Timmermans, then the European commissioner for the rule of law, said, “I regret that Romania has not only stalled its reform process, but also reopened and backtracked on issues where progress was made over the past 10 years.’’

Artwork promoting European Union values on a wall in Siniu, Romania.CreditOlivier Hoslet/EPA, via Shutterstock

Correcting course, he added, “is the only way Romania can resume its path toward the conclusion” of the monitoring process.

But some member states, shaken by the rise of far-right and populist parties and by the political pressures of migration, have no interest in allowing Romania and Bulgaria to enter the Schengen zone.

At a summit meeting in Sibiu, Romania, in March — the showpiece event of Romania’s presidency of the European Union — Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands was blunt. Asked when Romania would be able to join Schengen, he said: “When you comply with the rule of law, democracy. And you are not moving in the right direction at the moment.”

Cristian Ghinea, a former minister for European funds and a member of the European Parliament for the Save Romania Union, said that joining Schengen had “a symbolic value.”

“It is this feeling that the E.U. accession is not complete,” he said. Schengen is also important for business and for travel, he noted, since Romanian citizens and Romanian trucks must pass through border controls, complicating their participation in Europe’s single market.

Bianca Toma, an analyst at the Romanian Center for European Policies, a research organization in Bucharest, said that despite the success of Romania’s presidency of the bloc, “there is still mistrust in the new members of the club.”

But Romania “is making progress toward being the country the E.U. wants it to be,” she added, noting, “From civil society, the young, those with connections abroad, there’s significant resistance, involvement and commitment to change the negative side.”

“If we look at the politicians only, we can get pessimistic,” she said. “But there is only one direction for the country to go.”

Ms. Toma predicted that the November presidential election would confirm Romania’s shift toward the more liberal politics that were signaled in the European elections in May. Local elections follow in summer 2020, with parliamentary elections scheduled for fall of that year.

“We’ll see a significant change of the political landscape,” Ms. Toma said. “I’m not saying that the new ones will be much better, but we’ll get rid of a lot of the old habits.”

Follow Steven Erlanger on Twitter: @StevenErlanger.

Kit Gillet contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 8 of the New York edition with the headline: After 12 Years as E.U. Member, Romania Pushes to Be Fully Treated as One. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe