Published: November 25 2004
It is not always easy to determine the moment that a big organisation loses its way and falls into disrepute. Admitting Romania into the European Union in two years' time may be viewed as such a moment for the EU.
Before he passed on the enlargement portfolio this week, Günther Verheugen, the European commissioner, was rushing to conclude negotiations. The EU's decision to pour billions of euros into a state with weak administrative capacity has just intensified corruption. In spite of elaborate EU programmes to strengthen democracy, it looks possible that elections this Sunday will be marred by fraud.
Romania was the most hardline of eastern Europe's "People's Democracies", under a stammering megalomaniac, Nicolae Ceausescu. A people policed with Orwellian rigidity rose up in revolt in 1989. His courtiers, seeing the writing on the wall for them too, organised a putsch. The dictator was executed, the people were declared free, and these second-ranking former communists have never looked back.
The politicians of the ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD) double as the economic elite. They have sold the best state assets, mostly to themselves, at knockdown prices and proclaimed a free-market revolution. In 1999, the EU swallowed its misgivings and agreed to consider allowing Romania to join. This was at the behest of Tony Blair, the UK prime minister. He was impressed by the willingness of the country's leadership, then briefly in the hands of a decent but ineffectual centre-right president, to help Nato in its military intervention in Kosovo.
Soon back in charge, the PSD promised to modernise the bureaucracy and the legal system. The incentive was over €6bn that soon started to flow into the country. But most of the change consists of smoke and mirrors. Bucharest, the capital, retains its broken-down appearance. But resorts in the Carpathian mountains have seen the rise of grand villas owned by top politicians.
The biggest recipient of EU funds after Poland, Romania has little to show for the presence of an army of Brussels officials and consultants. But the EU has decided to turn a blind eye to the failings of its accession strategy. EU presidents and prime ministers agreed this summer that talks must be concluded this year to allow Romania to enter in 2007. On November 5, Mr Verheugen called for the closure of talks this month, which would have sealed the deal, in effect, only days before the elections. The Commission has now stepped back from that plan in the light of strong criticism from the European Parliament, among others.
Claiming to be on the left, the PSD is dominated by moneyed bigshots and obtains backing from village and small-town Romania. Its presidential candidate is Adrian Nastase, 54, the current prime minister. City dwellers and younger people look to the Alliance for Truth and Justice, a centrist movement headed by Traian Basescu. He has promised to rein in the network of corruption and reduce taxes but his manifesto is light on policy detail.
Many diplomats and Commission officials seem to prefer the PSD to serve another term. Corruption may be rampant and the justice system far from reform, but they point to four years of high growth (mainly fuelled by remittances, with little significant foreign investment). Mr Nastase also has allies among west European companies benefiting from the opening up of the Romanian economy.
One of the EU's own recent polls showed that 59 per cent of the Romanian public believed the EU's funding operations there were beset by fraud. Take farming, where 45 per cent of the labour force scrape a precarious living but where the bosses of the former collective farms have been the beneficiaries of EU largesse. They dream of creating vast haciendas on some of the best agricultural land in Europe. Under the EU policy of concentrating holdings, millions of Romanians must abandon it within the next 10 years.
Imagine Mr Verheugen had been given responsibility for the unification of Germany in 1990 and had adopted his strategy for Romania. Not only would the Stasi not have been broken up but it would have enjoyed renewed influence under a new name. Instead of being marginalised, Erich Honecker's younger colleagues would have popped up as bankers, heads of universities, media moguls and administrators. Trying to reconcile democracy with the forces of dictatorship would have led to a revolt and it would have been the end of Mr Verheugen. Instead, he has been promoted to industry commissioner and a country with massive problems, on which the EU has scarcely made an impression, is being hustled through the entry gate. Such indulgence will not make the EU respected in the Balkans, or in Ukraine and Moldova, where a foreign policy based on resolving ethnic conflicts and encouraging democracy faces ever stiffer tests.
The writer is professor of east European politics at Bradford University and the author of the forthcoming Theft of A Nation: Romania Since Communism (Hurst & Co)