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The EU accession ten years after

There is no doubt that in 1999 when the EU Commission recommended the start of accession negotiations, the Romanian society in general and the Romanian economy in particular were ill prepared for such a leap forward. It is my gut feeling that had it not been for the bloody conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the strategic needs of the Western powers in the region, Romania and Bulgaria would have been kept at the gates of Europe for at least another 20 years.
But, as Romanians always had an historic ability or were lucky enough to make the best of it and take advantage of their neighbors’ misfortunes, the EU countries accepted a long series of exceptions in key areas such as the justice system and the fight against corruption, functional market economy, environment, child care, etc., a long list of ifs and buts to be mended in time in order to see Romania and Bulgaria in, and seal off the conflict within a cordon sanitaire.
What this meant for the Romanian state, I believe, can only be compared with the sudden modernization of the young Romanian state under the fantastic initiatives of the 1848 generation that swept to power a decade later: the radical change in the legislative framework, the incredible pace of industrialization and infrastructure, the setting up of new institutions, a dramatic change in values and social behavior and so on.
Undoubtedly, the Romanian economy has benefited the most, as it has been connected to the main financial blood arteries of Europe, while the vast and free EU economic market offered huge export opportunities for Romanian companies. In a decade, Romanian exports have almost doubled, from 29 billion Euro to 54 billion Euro, the GDP jumped 26%, from 126 billion Euro to 160 billion Euro, while the average gross income has doubled. Those who mourn at the grave of the former communist industry should know that from the ashes of the energy-thirsty, stock-piling mammoths have risen new, efficient and profit-driven companies - Romanian owned or managed by large multinationals - that are able to compete on equal footing with any Western company. Even in the dark days of the world economic meltdown, between 2008 and 2010, Romanian companies managed to keep it going due to several converging factors such as relatively inexpensive labor costs, production versatility and management inventiveness. 
Ten years ago, it would have been unconceivable to see Romania having one of the highest yearly economic growth rates in Europe - almost 5% - inflation in negative territory and an unemployment rate of just 6.4%.
Having said that, one should also see the other side of the coin. As the European employment gates opened for Romanians, a constant and large flow of Romanians left the country in search of a better life elsewhere. The first waves of poorly skilled workers looking for any employment opportunities helped Romania keep a relatively low unemployment rate despite the sharp economic downturn in 2009 and 2010. Furthermore, the “strawberry-pickers” kept a steady influx of money pouring in the opposite direction, money that fed consumption and small investments, and thus keeping local businesses alive. Since 2000, almost 70 billion Euro has been sent home by Romanians living abroad, making them the most important “foreign investor” in the Romanian economy.
However, as the general economic prospects have improved, they were followed by highly skilled professionals like construction workers, engineers, doctors, IT specialists, depriving Romania’s economy of essential skills and resources. To make things worse, Romanian politicians do not sense any urgency in resetting the education principles upon which the schools, colleges and universities prepare the younger generation for the professional challenges the Romanian economy is facing right now.   
It is believed that no less than three million Romanians are now living abroad, but their influence back home is getting stronger. High speed internet link, the fastest in EU, allow for a constant stream of information that influence the decisions of those left behind, from mundane fashion trends to all-important voting decisions, and from demanding better customer rights to the desire to get more from the state institutions as a whole.
There is no doubt in my mind that the EU accession was one of the best and the luckiest things that have happened to the Romanian people in the last 100 of years, and for those who challenge it, I dare them to visit Serbia or the Republic of Moldova and live there for a month, but not in the comfort of a hotel, and have a taste of the real life there. It makes for a sobering experience.

The editorial is also available in our print edition.

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