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Webb Essay Competition 2002 - Second Prize

By Peter Bartal.

Peter Bartel, aged 21, from Timisoara, Romania came second in the Webb Essay competition of 2002. Read his essay below.

Why Are We Afraid of the European Union ?

Timisoara is a beautiful town in the western part of Romania. It is considered as one of the cities with the strongest economical potential in the country and the citizens of Timisoara are known as the most open-minded, with the strongest pro-European convictions. Timisoara is also the town where in 1989 the wind of changes that crossed Europe, entered Romania. This is the town that first said "no" to the totalitarian yoke.

I have lived here since I was born. I have seen the struggle for the present that God gave them and the whole country on Christmas 1989: freedom. And yes, many things have changed since. However, changes have not always been benefic. Now we are struggling for a better life and what you can hear in every news flash: the admission into NATO and the European Union.

The politicians in our government want to make the people believe that their efforts are tremendous and that they are paid off well, but this usually turns out to be untrue, especially when it comes to paying up the debts or keeping some agreement with the international monetary institutions (like IMF or the World Bank). Also the positive effects for an average citizen are invisible, social measures work very badly, investors do not queue at the borders of Romania and the gap between the rich and the poor grows continuously. However, the officials claim that it is "realistic" to believe, that Romania will join the European Union in 2007. My reaction is merely a bitter smile. But how do the other people see these things? Do they believe (like the government wants them to) that the membership is a kind of "Holy Grail" that we have to reach regardless of what might cost the population? Or do they react adversely, blaming the European Union for the wrong direction for which the country is heading? Do they really know what the European Union is?

When I heard of the competition organized by the Foreign Policy Centre (actually I read about it in a students magazine distributed freely in the campus of my university), I decided to write myself about what is on the mind of the people of Timisoara. I refused to look for official figures or reports and decided to start this one from scratch: I grasped my sister's tape recorder and went for a walk in the streets, to ask the people (especially the young) a few questions about the European Union, focusing on their fears.

What I have experienced, was of absolutely no surprise to me. But this time I had hard evidence, not just the propaganda of the government or (which naturally never includes negative aspects of a possible membership or reports on problems that still have to be dealt with in order to become a member of the European Union) or personal opinions of my best friends. I did not intend to conduct any survey whatsoever. I am lacking the necessary means and knowledge. Still, I believe the opinions I have heard give a genuine and undistorted insight into what people really believe about the European Union. And the final conclusion is no doubt that the vast majority is not afraid of the European Union. On the other hand, though, they have no idea about what the European Union could be… One of the questions I kept asking first, was: "What is the European Union?" Most of them looked at me in surprise, speechless at least for the next five seconds. Some of them remained silent even longer, others admitted that they did not know and many invented some kind of vague definition. Let me give you a few examples: "something we won't be in very, very soon", "a gathering of political forces", "a wider horizon", "contact with the civilized world", "Europe without us", "something good", "a better way of living together", "a world-wide organization" (!). There were a lot of people who made a complete confusion with the NATO. This because they are unable to determine the very nature of these two organisations: the NATO is a military alliance and the EU is (mainly) an economical and political union. I was glad to also meet people who had a clear idea about what the European Union looks like. These are (mainly) graduates (e. g. an en-gineer in the field of military equipment, a team leader at a mobile phone company), a handful of students and the manager of a small company.

Nevertheless almost nobody was against joining the EU. The only exception was a middle-aged man, who refused to be recorded on tape, but who told me that "Romania has everything it needs" and that "we are begging for worse". Only a few said they would not like the idea at the time being, because Romania could not face such a radical changing. And one person refused to answer this question. I was rather confused about this because the same person said she could not see any disadvantages connected to the admission into the European Union. This was indeed my next question: "What disadvantages could this membership have?" Most of the people saw absolutely no disadvantage of course. The only opinions which were different, referred to the economical differences between the European Union and Romania. Somebody said that right then, joining the European Union would "mess up" everything. Other disadvantages mentioned were that we were unprepared for that step, un-able to meet the requirements, like extra costs. And there was the minority that could make no difference between the NATO and the EU, represented by people who thought that a war could be the most dangerous thing, because then we would be obliged to fight side by side with the rest of Europe. This actually is true to some extent, but the members of the EU are also members of NATO and being a member of NATO involves first of all military support.

When I asked what Romania should give up to reach its aim and join the European Union, answers came promptly: number one were mentality and theft. A young man cried: "Oh! Yes! The actual regime first!" A 16 year old girl said we should have more private companies. This was the only important thing related to that she retained, she confessed.

In my opnion people do not care much about the European Union. Many of them admitted that or used this to explain their refusal of answering the questions. Others did not want to answer because I caught them off guard. (The people who refused to be questioned were at least as many as the ones who accepted.) Their concerns are more immediate, simple, regarding everyday life, the constant and unstoppable rise of prices, especially fuel, electricity and heating and, as a consequence, that of food; the numerous deficiencies encountered in the area of social protection, like the lack of medicine and the carelessness of the medical personnel, which changes its attitude only if you show up with an envelope full of bills. This represents one of the major reasons for which so many things go wrong and why investors stay away from Romania: corruption at every level. A former classmate, who later joined a political party, revealed to me that once you bribe someone in Hungary, you can consider "the case closed". But not in Romania! You bribe someone to be sent to someone else who, at his/her turn, has to be bribed to do something and so on. Bureaucracy in Romania offers an ideal medium for this.

With all these (and many other) handicaps, the road to the European Union is long and hard. The thing I am most afraid of is competition. I am afraid that we will be completely run over. If we do not want to be disqualified, we must change our mentality. And mentalities change with difficulty. The Romanian behaves like a child that has been locked up for a long time, and now, having escaped, wants to grab everything that shines. But not everything that shines is gold and for gold you have to work. It takes a lot of patience until you teach to everybody that. However, I strongly believe, that at the end of every tunnel, there is a little light.