The European Union still prides itself on being a progressive entity capable of projecting eastwards into once inhospitable terrain values and institutions essential for good governance and economic success. But two reports being released this week on Romania and Bulgaria, members since 2007, show how hollow such rhetoric is becoming. Corruption remains entrenched and efforts to counter it are blocked at high level. Bulgaria will suffer some penalties but Romania, now the seventh largest EU state, will emerge largely unscathed.

Except for brief interludes of reform, political power has been wielded in the two decades since communism ended by a narrow set of parties and economic interest groups. They comprise a trans-party oligarchy, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with one another and are determined not to be accountable before the law or to be impeded by constraints from Brussels.

Two successive prime ministers, Adrian Nastase, a Social Democrat and, since 2004, the Liberal Calin Tariceanu, noticed that the attention-span of the EU was rather spasmodic as it struggled to absorb 12 new members after 2000. These wealthy and urbane politicians launched numerous action plans and other reform rituals which were essentially just public relations gimmicks in order to satisfy Eurocrats that Romania was busy internalising European norms and values. The elite played off different tiers of the EU’s multi-layered structure, the Commission, the Council and the Parliament and lobbied avidly to secure entry on a minimal agenda of change. Its ace card was its ability to offer contracts for infrastructure projects to companies that enjoyed influence both in Brussels and in the parties that dominated some of the core EU states.

In this way, the EU was gradually disarmed by a calculating local elite well versed in simulating change. Romania became the 27th member of the EU on January 1 2007 with most vital reforms existing only on paper or else promised in the future. The EU had accepted a sham separation of powers making the justice system finally free of executive control. But judges continued to acquit, give derisory sentences or postpone the cases of politicians who come before them on corruption charges. An economy from which the state had extracted itself far more swiftly than in post-1979 Britain remained under the influence of business networks closely allied to most of the main political parties. This unholy alliance is determined to prevent values cherished by the EU, such as political accountability, clean government and active citizenship ever acquiring any real meaning in the Romanian context.

The EU failed to launch a searching appraisal when it become clear after 2004 that Romania would join with the bureuacratic road map known as the acquis communautaire completed but with the country still largely unreformed. Mr Nastase and Mr Tariceanu noted that when the deadlines for implementing targets drew near, Brussels officials, sometime under political pressure or in order to save their own face, were prepared to dilute them. In the year before entry, Bucharest was openly defying the EU by refusing to approve key anti-corruption undertakings. In 2007, Tudor Chiuariu, a 29-year-old justice minister, appointed to disable a prosecuting unit investigating high-level corruption, openly disparaged the EU. Brussels now believes that his replacement by an emollient figure with essentially similar objectives counts for progress in the rocky road to clean up the justice system.

In its defence, the EU said it merely gave Romanian leaders the chance to implement reforms that would result in successful modernisation. The initiative lay with them and the EU’s influence was limited. But this is a rather disingenuous argument. The timetable for entry, particular reforms in the judicial and administrative spheres, the disastrous form of regionalisation through which funds were channelled, the privatisation of most strategic sectors of the economy and the lifting of price controls were all worked out in advance by the EU.

Former communists and rogue capitalists who became extraordinarily rich through manipulating an unregulated economic system after 1989 are among the main beneficiaries of the €30bn in structural funds flowing into the country courtesy of the EU taxpayer. Meanwhile, a huge human exodus of talented professionals, as well as several million manual workers, is causing grave labour shortages and producing a demographic time-bomb. These are the people who made the sacrifices Brussels demanded but whose interests were often overlooked in cosy negotiations with figures who despised the ideals supposedly driving forward EU enlargement.

No arm of the multi-layered EU distinguished itself in relation to Romania although individual figures in the Commission behaved with credit as they saw the train-wreck that was approaching. Perhaps it is due to some of them that the devastating top-secret report on the state of Romanian justice by the experienced Belgian jurist, Willem de Pauw, was recently leaked. The fact that Britain and the Netherlands find themselves isolated inside the EU in calling for tough action against corruption driven from the top in Romania is a crushing indictment of the EU’s inability to stand up for basic standards of governance that are surely indispensable if it hopes to survive as a force for influence in the world.

The writer’s book, Romania and the European Union: How the Weak Vanquished the Strong, will be published by Manchester University Press early in 2009

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