Mon, May 28, 2012 - Page 9 News List

It is not all milk and honey when east meets west

As the economic meltdown of the eurozone continues, many east Europeans are beginning to question the benefits of joining the EU

By Michael Winfrey and Luiza Ilie  /  Reuters, PETRACHIOAIA, ROMANIA

The poorest two, Bulgaria and Romania, would struggle to break the 60 percent barrier in the next 30 years and the latter could fall back to below present levels, they said.

Zsolt Darvas, a research fellow at Brussels-based think tank Bruegel, said that compared to Ireland’s performance two decades ago, the eastern states are lagging, with some coming to resemble the path of Portugal, Spain and Greece, which made advances, but then hit a wall.

Darvas thinks Bulgaria and Romania still “have a lot of chances to converge,” but that realistically “in 40-50 years, if they will be around 50 percent of the EU average, that would not be bad for these countries.”

It is not as if EU membership has brought no improvements. In Petrachioaia, the main road was paved for the first time in 2008, a year after Romania joined the EU. The last of the town’s four schools got plumbing two years ago.

In Bucharest, the capital, luxury cars have replaced dilapidated Soviet-era Dacias and Western brands from Gucci to Starbucks stand where just a decade ago were grim shops labeled “shoes” and “food.”

Yet, problems persist. Romania’s highways link only three cities and none reach a land border or a port, a red flag for exporting investors.

Only about a quarter of the population hold down steady jobs — there are roughly the same number of pensioners and the same again of subsistence farmers — so the country’s production potential is below its better-off peers.

While Ireland benefited from EU funds, Romania, dogged by corruption, bureaucracy and a lack of co-financing, has used just 8 percent of the 19 billion euros available since 2007.

Polls show that fewer than half of Romanians now have faith in the EU, down from over two-thirds before entry. Tom Gallagher, a professor of east European politics at Bradford University, said that raises the risk of political dissent or a rise of radical parties if people become frustrated with the wealth gap.

“Romania will be a permanent drag on the EU if we continue to fall behind, and the country faces long-term underdevelopment and decay unless there is a relaunch of the partnership with the EU,” Gallagher said.

Petrachioaia school director Minu Iordanescu, 56, has already adjusted his expectations.

“Living conditions can get better, but that may take 50 years,” he said. “So maybe my grandchildren will taste a more civilized life.”

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