A few minutes before midnight, University Square in Bucharest was bubbling with excitement. The sky was lit up with fireworks in the Romanian colours of yellow, red and blue. 2006 was about to become 2007. But the people who had gathered in the square at the heart of the Romanian capital weren’t just toasting to a new year. They were celebrating the start of a new era.
"We had a few hours of electricity every day, we had no drugs. I had to look after hundreds of sick patients, because doctors had moved to the West.”
Romanian’s then president Traian Basescu, explained to his people:
“It was hard but we reached the end of the road. It is the road of our future. It is the road of our joy. We arrived in Europe. Welcome to Europe!”
On that New Year’s Eve, the blue and yellow EU flag was flying outside the government’s headquarters. It had been raised to the sound of the EU anthem earlier that evening.
Seventeen years earlier, in 1989, the Communist regime was on the verge of collapse. That Christmas, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi was working one of many long shifts in the A&E at the hospital in Iasi. She had several years’ experience in healthcare, working as a medical student in the 1980s, and was therefore very familiar with how bad the country was at taking care of its sick and infirm.
“We had a few hours of electricity every day, we had no drugs. I had to look after hundreds of sick patients, because doctors had moved to the West. I didn’t even have oxygen tubes. That was just how it was. There were people in the psychiatric wards who were so depressed by their living conditions that it wasn’t even worth trying to treat them,” she says.
Everything changed on 25 December 1989 for Romania, and for Alina Mungiu-Pippidi. She lost one of her patients. The hospital ran out of oxygen and the patient died, at about the same time the dictator was executed.
She left the hospital that day and never went back. Instead she decided to try and get things to change. She became a journalist and eventually founded Romania’s biggest think tank, the Romanian Academic Society (SAR). Later it was to play an important role by increasing the pressure on Romania’s political reforms. And to increase the country’s chances of joining the European Union.
”There were so many influential people who were simply draining the government and who didn't take their responsibility in power seriously.”
Romania’s first step towards the EU came just a few years after the country escaped the grip of totalitarian dictatorship. The power-crazed dictator and President, Nicolae Ceaușescu, who had governed the country since the 1960s, was deposed and executed. Romania had been left in an appalling condition, to say the least. Remnants of dictatorship remained, however, in the shape of former Communists who took over leadership roles. There are countless articles about Romania’s process of joining the EU, in which you can read about how bad things were in the country, long after the collapse of the dictatorship.
✓ Corruption was rife in most areas of society.
✓ There were major problems with judges and courts being controlled by the government.
✓ A report from the US Department of Homeland Security indicated that journalists were living dangerously – one reporter received death threats after reporting on a mayor who advocated poaching and then lost the election.
✓ The collapse of the Ceaușescu dictatorship in 1989 led to former Communist Party representatives managing to grab the country’s most valuable land.
“Romania was a big mess, it was chaos,” says professor Tom Gallagher at the University of Bradford in the UK, who has written several books about Romania.
What was the biggest problem?
“I’d say the problem that is still on many people’s lips today: corruption. There were so many influential people who were simply draining the government and who didn’t take their responsibility in power seriously. It was a poorly functioning government and the people who had high expectations were far from power,” says Gallagher.
From the think tank’s office in Bucharest, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi says that the Romanian people had sky high expectations of the EU. The people wanted change and it was a matter of desperation, she says.
“Many people wanted Romania to be governed directly from Brussels, which would be able to bypass the corrupt political class that had developed during the transitional period. They wanted Brussels to be able to change the country in a very short period of time, and make it more honest and prosperous,” she says.
It would take several years of negotiations, after the first application in June 1995. The main concerns were flaws in the agricultural industry, food safety, the much-discussed corruption and the country’s problem with a non-functional judicial system.
Romania was faced with demands to address the problems and to do it quickly. Two years before membership was voted through, there were 14 issues – or “red flags” – to be addressed.
"Some of the people who voted in favour were caught up in a general surge of enthusiasm for EU expansion.”
In the lead up to the final phase of the process, president Basescu was very clear on the issue of whether his country was ready to enter the EU.
“No. When the treaty is signed, Romania will not be ready to comply with European standards,” the President said before the European Parliament vote in 2006, according to Der Spiegel.
To some extent, the President’s statements fuelled the concerns of the other member states. Nevertheless, the application was voted through by a large majority.
Gunnar Hökmark of the Swedish Moderate Party, and an MEP since 2004, was one of the Swedish politicians who voted in favour.
“Some of the people who voted in favour were caught up in a general surge of enthusiasm for EU expansion. Then there were people like me, in favour of expansion, who saw the problems but also saw that there were greater opportunities for Romania if they were approved than if they had been declined. There was a risk that the reputable powers in Romania would have found it more difficult to assert themselves if they had been declined entry,” says Hökmark.
A few days after the European Parliament vote, foreign ministers from the various countries travelled to Luxembourg. The Treaty of Accession was signed at a formal ceremony in Neumunster Abbey. Sweden’s then foreign minister Laila Freivalds signed the treaty on behalf of Sweden.
Daniela Hering, 45.Nurse at Karolinska University Hospital in Solna, Sweden. Moved to Sweden: September 2012.”I moved here for the usual reason – love. And even though that love didn't last, I decided to stay. I starting working the very first day, within home services, until I'd completed the SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) course and got my Swedish licence to practise as a nurse. And then I got a job as a nurse straight away, because there's such a huge demand. I've bought a flat and live here with my son, who's in college. I'm pleased that someone wants to talk to Romanians who are integrated. My colleagues and other Swedes ask why the Romanian government can't look after its own citizens. I don't have the answer to that. I've felt responsible for all of the people begging on the street, because they have a Romanian identity. I hope the government can resolve the Roma problem. They've always been discriminated against and it continues to this day. I'm not planning on moving back to Romania. I'm integrated in Sweden and like the people here.” Mircea Adaniloaie, 38.Cleaner, who just started his own company, Vaxholm, Sweden. Moved to Sweden: 2011.”I came because a friend who was already here got me a job at a cleaning firm. I've just handed in my notice, so I can start my own company with my wife. I moved here to give my children better prospects. My daughter was born three months ago. Romania has too much corruption and children have no future. There are no jobs and it's hard for children to have a good life. In Bucharest I was a private chauffeur for a Romanian MP. He said to me, 'Go! There won't be a future here for another 10-15 years.' There are a lot of Romanians here. We aren't beggars, we're workers. I'll do absolutely anything rather than begging. I'm a proud Romanian and don't like the fact that they beg. We're going to stay here, for the sake of my children. They're going to go to school and be able to make something of their lives. The future's here, not there.” Lia Stoica, 37.Worked with PR and communication in Romania and is studying at Stockholm University to be a preschool teacher. Moved to Sweden: October 2010.”I didn't move here for financial or political reasons, it was because I wanted to challenge myself. It didn't feel like I was leaving anything behind. I just moved into a new phase of my life. I started from scratch, with the language, friends, education and everything else, but it feels better than I thought it would. I've never felt excluded, even it was hard to find a job at first, despite me speaking English and having a good CV. I took a job as a damage restorer, which was a contrast from my old office job back in Romania. But it was the best thing that's happened to me. Right now my life is wonderful and I have no plans to move. I now live in Sweden with my partner and we might move to southern Spain in ten years. I can go to Romania whenever I like and they can come and visit me. It's only a 2½ hour flight. I know that there's corruption in Romania and they have tried to do things for the Roma, but failed. People like myself also help, over there. Right now it's not a political issue. It's about wanting to, and a lot of people in Romania want to help.”
However, the treaty contained one special clause. If Romania failed to reach its targets, entry would be delayed. In conjunction with the signing of the treaty, the BBC reported that some countries would attempt to delay the process despite Romania’s continued positive development.
There was concern about a sudden influx of Romanian citizens into other EU countries.
Even before entry into the EU, many Romanian citizens had fled their homeland. In 2013, roughly 3 million Romanians were estimated to be working in other countries – most of them in Italy and Spain, according to Swedish public service broadcaster Sveriges Radio.
”There are considerably fewer well-educated people in Romania and that causes problems.”
“Joining the EU means citizens have been allowed to study and travel to other countries, which is a positive thing. But at the same time, thousands of Romanian doctors, for example, have left the country and are now working in Western Europe. It’s good for them but much worse for Romania. There are considerably fewer well-educated people in Romania and that causes problems. That’s the other side of the coin,” says Paul Ivan, senior political analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels.
But while many Romanians continue to relocate to other countries for work, the main focus in the rest of Europe has been on Romanian beggars. Particularly in Sweden.
According to a survey carried out by Swedish public service broadcaster SVT last summer, the number of poor, primarily Romanian Roma, on the streets of Sweden has almost doubled in just a year. According to the survey there are 4,000 people making a living from begging on the Swedish streets.
Norica Nicolai has a background as a prosecutor, secretary of state and senator in Romania. Today she is one of Romania’s 32 MEPs. We meet her in her office, with views across the Ill, a tributary of the Rhine, which winds its way past the parliament buildings in Strasbourg like a moat.
She is in a meeting but after quarter of an hour she lets us in to answer our question: why have so many Romanians come to Sweden to beg for money?
“They come to be part of the Swedish system. But they don’t understand that the system was originally built by Swedes and for Swedes. But now it’s for others too, because you are an open country that acts differently to other EU countries. You are not as selfish, you’re always friendly and prepared to help us,” she says.
Norica Nicolai warns that Swedes could be exploited.
“There are people who need help in a lot of Eastern European countries, including Romania. People who have neither work nor money. There is a considerable need. But sometimes they refuse to work if the money isn’t good enough, if it’s 200 to 300 euros. They would rather earn money by begging,” she says.
Do you have any evidence of that?
“If you come to Romania and look at the Roma communities and the houses there, you can see very expensive houses. Sometimes the houses are empty with just a grandmother living there who is too old to travel abroad. But there are regions with these expensive houses with expensive cars and when we ask where they got the money from, many of them can’t answer that. They say that they’ve been working in Sweden, Italy, France or other developed countries,” she says.
”I think that a lot of people have the option of working. You can access the employment market even if you're not highly qualified.”
It is hard to get figures for the number of unemployed Roma in Romania. The official statistics do not show different ethnic groups and only show that 4.91% of the entire population is unemployed. But according to the Swedish Embassy in Bucharest, unemployment, poverty and health problems are more widespread among Roma than the rest of the population.
And figures from the EU indicate that only one in three Roma in the EU has a paid job.
Like most other Romanian politicians, Norica Nicolai sees education as the magic formula instead. The key that will open all the doors that are closed to the Roma minority population. But only 15% of the EU’s Roma stay on after compulsory education. That is no obstacle, according to Nicolai.
“I think that a lot of people have the option of working. You can access the employment market even if you’re not highly qualified. There are a lot of jobs but unfortunately they’re not very well paid. And unfortunately, a lot of people, not just Roma, want to have a lot of money. Sometimes for doing nothing. It’s more attractive to get money in Sweden or somewhere else than to stay in Bucharest,” she says.
Soraya Post, Swedish politician for the Feminist Initiative Party, together with Romanian Damian Draghici, is one of only two Roma MEPs. She feels that the issue of discrimination of Romania's Roma is not being taken seriously enough in the European Parliament. Norica Nicolai is one of Romania's 32 MEPs. Expressen meets her in her office in Strasbourg to find out why so many Romanians come to Sweden to beg for money. "You are not as selfish, you're always friendly and you're prepared to help us," she says. Fredrick Federley, MEP for Sweden's Centre Party, has put pressure on the Commission about Romania's use of the funding intended for Roma integration: "The Commission is not taking its social responsibility." The European Commission has appointed a team to make it harder for member countries to violate their citizens' rights. "In Romania it goes without saying that this will be an issue of basic Roma rights," says Cecilia Wikström, Group Leader for the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE).
She insists it’s not about discrimination.
“Many people say that there is discrimination but I’m certain that you can interview the people who come to your country and ask them how many times they’ve gone to the employment office and asked for a job. I’d really like to know the answer. You can check their name with the Romanian authorities afterwards,” she advises.
Once the camera is switched off and we are about to leave Norica’s office, she says that Sweden is a target – for refugees and beggars alike.
“You are a target,” she says in English.
When Romania joined the EU, the issue of Roma rights was high on the EU’s agenda. The member states were forced to established a national Roma integration strategy. The money was to be taken from the EU’s Structural Funds, primarily the European Social Fund (ESF) to level out the social and economic gulfs.
But Romania did not manage to claim and use the money. Only 27% was spent between 2007 and 2013. Today that figure is 47%, according to the European Commission.
”It's beneath contempt. The Commission is not taking its social responsibility.”
“There aren’t many experts in this area. European projects can sometimes be difficult. The interest is there but there aren’t many organisations that are capable of applying for these grants. We have a few good Roma organisations that are working hard, and we also have a State Secretary for Roma issues who is trying to ensure that the money gets to the Roma,” Norica Nicolai explains.
The country and the payment system have both been criticised and it is not as if there is a lack of suggestions for improvement.
In August, Fredrick Federley, MEP for Sweden’s Centre Party, put pressure on the Commission about Romania’s use of the funding:
“Does the Commission agree that the ESF is not completely fulfilling its potential as an instrument to combat poverty and exclusion?” he wrote in a question to the Commission – a way for MEPs to exert pressure.
Federley proposed that the EU should instead give the money directly to the aid organisations working in that country.
In a written response, however, the European Commissioner in charge of the issue, Marianne Thyssen, distanced herself from the criticism.
There is a great unwillingness among Romanian politicians to help Roma, an explanation that is repeated in Strasbourg.
“It’s beneath contempt. The Commission is not taking its social responsibility,” says Federley.
There is a great unwillingness among Romanian politicians to help Roma, an explanation that is repeated in Strasbourg.
“The system is based on having a local, regional or national agency involved. If you are the mayor of a municipality with strong anti-Gypsy tendencies and you spend €8 million on installing water and sewage pipes in an area mainly populated by Roma, you will be seen as being on their side. And come the next election, you won’t be the mayor anymore,” says Federley.
Does the EU have any means of exerting influence?
“No, we haven’t. Not on this issue or on many others either. If you don’t implement legislation, you can be fined. But if you implement it and then don’t bother applying the rules, you get away with it,” says Federley.
We look for more Romanian MEPs to talk to. Despite several promises of an interview with Romanian MEP Damian Draghici, a member of the Socialist Group, we have no choice but to give up. We might be able to get an interview in November, his assistant tells us. A former advisor to the Romanian Prime Minister, together with Soraya Post he is one of only two Roma MEPs. He begged on the streets when he was young.
Julian Cananau, 40.Lecturer at the University of Gävle, Sweden, specialising in American Literature. Arrived: July 2011.”We came to Sweden for social and financial reasons. My wife and I both had good jobs, but it's hard to have a career in Romania. I worked at the University of Bucharest, but earned about a 10th of what a Swedish teacher earns on average. It was roughly the same for doctors. Even if you worked hard and were good at your job, it didn't pay off. When Romania joined the EU, we could have moved almost anywhere, including the US, where I lived for a year. But we chose Sweden because I had read that the community here has good social values, for example, tolerance, justice and respect for other people. So I understood that moving to Sweden was going to suit us much better than anywhere else. We're really happy in Sweden. We feel that the job we're doing is being rewarded, not just salary-wise, but also that there's a chance of a career if you work hard. We've come here for good. When we left our country, it was forever. Which is why we've also been extremely motivated to adapt to our new country and do whatever's necessary to have a good life here. So, no we won't be returning.” Carmen Cananau, 40.Assistant Chief Surgeon specialising in Neuroradiology and Head of the Neuroradiology Department at the Karolinska University Hospital in Huddinge, Sweden. Moved here: July 2011.”We moved here because it became quite difficult for me to find a high level job within my field in Romania. There's a staff shortage, but it's still difficult. I came here via a recruitment agency. There's so much corruption in Romania at the moment and they're doing absolutely nothing to improve the situation for the people who live there. It's not just Roma people who don't have a good life there. We have lots and lots of friends who still live there and despite them being highly-educated, for various reasons they can't move abroad. I see no improvements for the country within the next ten years. 14,000 doctors have left Romania since the 1st January 2007, and spread out around the world. Romania has lost so much intellect, when so many people could have contributed to the country's development. We're hoping to become Swedish citizens next year. We've decided to become Swedish and are definitely not thinking of moving back there. Both myself and my husband have really great jobs and our two children are really happy at school.” Andrei Macavei, 32.Telecommunications Engineer and Product Developer at Ericsson, Täby, Sweden. Moved here: January 2012.”I worked for Ericsson in Romania and for projects in England, Belgium and the Netherlands before I moved over here. Corruption in Romania, my desire to further my career and for a better life are the reasons why I moved. I want to stay and raise a family in Sweden, because I'm treated better here. I've decided to change my name to a Swedish one. It will reduce a lot of the prejudices that normal Swedes, recruiters and potential customers have, should I want to start my own business in future. At the moment it's not a problem because I work for an international company. When strangers find out where I'm from, they sometimes back away or ask, 'What is Romania going to do about the beggars who have come over here?' I say, 'Stop giving them money, that's why they are here.'” Sergiu Florin Moșincăț, 33.Runs his own construction company, Gislaved, Sweden. Moved here: March 2007.”Me moving here wasn't planned. An acquaintance had a house and needed to do some renovations. He asked me to come over for a month and fix some things. I saw that the system here worked, I was happy and decided to live here. There's no corruption in Sweden. I tried to do my job in Romania, but corruption is so widespread over there that it's hard to get anywhere. Here you don't have to hand over 'presents' to get work. In Romania you couldn't get a big job without handing over presents to at least two people on the local council or a construction company. That's how it works. I worked as a guard for a security service, and I got that job through paying someone. That's how it is, if you don't know people. My wife and I run our own companies now, she has a cleaning firm and I have a construction company. We're happy here and have no intention of returning, the way things look right now. If the system changes and there's less corruption, then maybe.”
“I’m not ashamed of it. I was 18 at the time and had no other way to earn a living. Begging is part of my life and has made me the person I am today,” he said last year in an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.
Soraya Post, newly elected Swedish MEP for the Feminist Initiative Party after the EU elections in 2014, has criticised Draghici in the past for not taking the discrimination of Romania’s Roma seriously enough. A common attitude in the European Parliament, Post feels.
When we tell her about Norica Nicolai’s view of beggars and of the Roma, she shrugs her shoulders.
“Naturally they try to place the blame elsewhere.” She draws attention to the few who have travelled abroad and acquired money or worked out in the fields in various countries and invested in houses.
“Buildings that are often quite empty inside but look very grand on the outside. The vast majority don’t live like that. The vast majority are living without water, without electricity, without any kind of infrastructure at all, in shacks,” she says.
Romanian MEP Siegfried Mureșan, from the EPP Conservative Party Group, points to another piece of the puzzle. Bureaucracy in Romania doesn’t exactly run as smoothly as it does in Sweden.
“The use of these funds in Central and Eastern Europe is a disappointment and is due to a lack of administrative ability and political will,” he says.
Small organisations, in particular, that can’t afford auditors and lawyers suffer when the formalities get too complicated. But that doesn’t just affect Roma. Money earmarked for roads and railways is sitting there untouched as well, according to Mureșan.
EU machinery is slow-moving. But sometimes something happens. This autumn, the Commission appointed a team to review EU fund regulations. And as from the beginning of 2016, member states can be taken to court for failing to uphold their citizens’ rights and freedoms.
“In Romania it goes without saying that this will be an issue of fundamental Roma rights. We will be reviewing and highlighting this on an annual basis. And the country must be able to answer,” says Swedish Liberal People’s Party politician Cecilia Wikström, and group leader of the European Parliament’s Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE), which managed to enforce the legislative change this summer by a narrow margin.
”They meet the criteria, but there's more to be done in terms of a properly functioning market economy and the judicial system. They are still lagging a long way behind.”
Ever since the fireworks lit up the night sky above University Square in Bucharest on that December night in 2006, Romania has been constantly monitored by the European Commission. Every year new status reports are presented, documenting Rumania’s successes – or lack of them. It might look like the EU has Romania on a tight leash, but Tom Gallagher says that this is not the case.
“I wouldn’t say that they’ve been under close scrutiny. Many of these reports glossed over things to a great extent and I know via reliable sources that the most critical report, which was written before 2004, was put together by people at a fairly low level who were under orders to paint a positive picture. This type of approach is not particularly uncommon in the EU,” says Gallagher.
The latest status report, published in January this year, stated that the fight against corruption is moving at an impressive speed. But at the same time it stated that more work needs to be done in some areas – partly through combating corruption at lower levels of society too.
MEP Gunnar Hökmark says that Romania has enjoyed good economic development since joining the EU. But he adds that much remains to be done.
“This is not a fully developed society. They meet the criteria, but there’s more to be done in terms of a properly functioning market economy and the judicial system. They are still lagging a long way behind.”
”I fear that there will be a demographic crisis in Romania, that all the people who can find work abroad will leave the country.”
Tom Gallagher paints a considerably less rosy picture of Romania’s future within the Union.
“The EU sold itself to these former Communist countries as if they were an engine for development that would bring improved economic conditions and as if the standard of living would approach that of the rest of the EU. This has not been the case – in economic terms, Romania is an absolute backwater. There is no productive economy, there is just a consumption economy,” he says.
1 January 2007. More than 100,000 happy Romanians have gathered in central Bucharest to celebrate their new membership in the EU. 5 November 2015. A young woman in Bucharest demonstrates her dissatisfaction with the regime by holding a placard with the words "Waiting for a change". The government resigns soon after.
Gallagher also says that several important areas have been ignored in Romania, such as health and education. This autumn’s street protests in Bucharest – which began after a fatal nightclub fire and led to the resignation of the government – have partly been fuelled by criticism of health and education policies.
“It’s not just about all of the people who died in the nightclub. It’s about neglecting the health and education sectors. EU membership has made no difference whatsoever in these areas that people are so dependent upon. I fear that there will be a demographic crisis in Romania, that all the people who can find work abroad will leave the country.”
You think the exodus will be even bigger than it has been already?
“I fear so – if a new government doesn’t become more result-oriented and achieve reforms that really make a difference to large areas of society,” says Gallagher.
Survey interviews: Diamant Salihu.