Most Britons, even the fairly well travelled, tend to lump together all nations formerly behind the Iron Curtain under the category “Eastern Europe”.
Under this analysis there is little to distinguish Poland, Hungary or Serbia from Croatia, the Czech Republic or Romania. Yet their ancient countries along with tumultuous histories have very different cultures, traditions and outlooks.
I spent five days on a parliamentary delegation this September in Romania, a country of twenty-two million people, which hopes to gain membership of the European Union from 1 January 2007.
By instinct I have always supported enlargement of the EU. My own continental ancestry (my German mother was born in what is now Poland) makes me intrinsically sympathetic. But we need to have some perspective here.
In the headlong rush towards enlargement supporters of the European ideal need to look a little more dispassionately at what the EU ? and by implication ? this country is taking on. In May 2004 ten new countries joined the EU; Romania and Bulgaria are on track for accession within two years and in the near future Turkey and Ukraine are likely applicants.
As ever there is a strongly political element to this rush of activity. The unelected, bureaucratic class in Brussels regards the drive to add vast swathes of territory and millions of new people to the European Union as part of a plan to create a world power and thereby to counter-balance the all-pervading influence of the United States of America. Meanwhile, those behind this expansion also hope it is designed to counter the effect of the rapid economic expansion of China and India in the East.
I much enjoyed my five day stay in Romania. We met all of the leading political figures from the Prime Minister to the Foreign Minister and their predecessors. We visited the Capital, Bucharest, saw historical Orthodox Churches (not for nothing was the City once regarded as the Paris of the East during the first half of the last century). We walked through erstwhile President Ceaucescu’s grotesquely expensive but awe inspiring palace, the second largest building in the world (to Washington DC’s Pentagon complex), which now houses both chambers of the Romanian parliament. We travelled to the Danube Delta and by speed boat saw with our own eyes the wetlands which make up a world environmental heritage site which will hopefully become a key tourist attraction in the decades ahead.
The Romanian people we met were friendly, humorous, easy-going if at times they betrayed a history of long-suffering exploitation. Yet I arrived back in London with deep misgivings about the blind rush towards expansion of the European Union. Indeed what we saw in Romania could, I suspect, equally be said for Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and the three Baltic States which have already joined the EU.
The language, culture, race, religion, history as well as political and economic tradition is vastly different in ? and often, within – all of these states. Relations between natives of these nations, and their regions are characterised by mutual distrust and historical conflict.
Large parts of Romania are still pre-industrial. Forty per cent of its inhabitants work in agriculture – you would need to go back to the 1830s for the last time as many as two fifths of the working population in Britain were employed on the land. Even the Ministers in the Romanian government admitted that corruption is rife in the country. The independent Transparency International lobby group rates the country at eighty sixth in the world, below many African nations as well as miles adrift of any other EU state. In many ways it is even worse than this because corruption pre-supposes a system of administration which is abused by officials, but the truth is much of Romania lacks even a basic bureaucratic administration.
The power of the Orthodox Church was not much in evidence during our time in Romania but it is there as an all-pervading influence and the Church has always sided with whichever government is in power whether the Fascist regime of the 1940s (which had its roots quite independent of either the German, Italian or Spanish Fascists of the time) to the Communist government of Ceaucescu to the present day democracy.
The great sadness is that in many ways Romania is a country tremendously rich in the calibre of its people, in minerals, resources and fertile land. Yet for much of the last half century under Communism it was barely able to feed its people.
Repeatedly, I put it to members of the Romanian political class that they regard entry into the EU at the beginning of 2007 as an end in itself. As we have seen from the experience of Germany (where the colossal costs of reunification after 1990 have severely effected the domestic economy) the real hard work and reform has to start in earnest after EU accession. Indeed Germany is a very worrying precedent. Some fifteen million East Germans were taken under the wing of the Federal Republic which had four times as many citizens, yet the pace of economic reform and cultural progress has been painstakingly slow.
From what I saw with my own eyes it was unclear whether the Romanian political class, yet alone its people, are up for this challenge over future decades. More worryingly still, I detected that one of the most important attractions to the Romanians of joining the EU is the opportunity to hitch their nation’s fortunes to Brussels, rather than relying upon its own discredited administration. Indeed many of the more recent entrants to the European Union regard incorporation into this larger economic and political entity as a means of avoiding responsibility for their own destiny. Unfortunately, decades of totalitarian Communist rule has brought with it a culture of dependency which is going to take time and work to unravel.
It is all the more important that the younger Romanians who have been brought up in a freer country stay and help rebuild their homeland. Understandably the temptation for many of the brightest and best will be to make their way in life overseas ? whether in London, Paris, Frankfurt or potentially further afield. However, there are some encouraging signs that some of the most talented are returning to Romania from places such as New York and London with experience as bankers and entrepreneurs and after a spell in the West now wish to build up business and wealth back home.
Famously Romania also has a large Romany or gypsy population. Our own tabloid newspapers have highlighted the threat of large numbers of European gypsies coming to live in England in order to take advantage of our comparatively generous welfare benefits. I believe these fears are groundless. This is not a complacent response, but simply one based on what I saw with my own eyes ? and it was a particularly tragic story.
The gypsy communities we saw lived in appalling squalor as virtual outcasts from Romanian society. Let no one tell you that they have some romantic existence as travelling tradesmen going about their rural lives in brightly coloured wagons. We saw a 2,500 strong, suburban Romany community made up of people whose education and health facilities were dire, eking out a subsistence living via the black economy and petty crime. They have been ? and continue to be – despised, feared and disregarded by much of the settled Romanian population. The notion that more than a handful have more than the vaguest appreciation of where England is, let alone possess the energy and enthusiasm to make their way over to these shores is fanciful. Nevertheless, a number of Eastern European countries have sizeable nomadic gypsy populations which present a significant internal social problem. And remember that once it joins the EU, Romania’s problems will also be ours.