“We have bet on the good guys winning”
Turbulent and imperfect but finally delivered on time, Jonathan Scheele, outgoing Head of the Delegation of the European Commission in Romania, talks over the five years to accession and the next role for Romania
Last September suspicion and not celebration arrested much of the western media when it was surprised with the news that Romania was entering the European Union in a matter of weeks.
Following the announcement, seasoned Romania commentator Tom Gallagher wrote in the UK’s Financial Times: “It is hard to avoid the impression that the country is joining largely on the terms of a local elite that has often outsmarted Brussels functionaries.”
Outgoing Head of the Delegation of the European Commission in Romania, Jonathan Scheele, acknowledges that Romania is still an unknown country and far from perfect.
But he takes issue with Gallagher.
“He believed that if only the European Union had stood there like a policeman and said [to Romania]: ‘You are all evil and until you do penance you may not enter [the EU]’, then everything would have been all right,” he says.
“My own view, and I think that of the Commission, is not that we were outsmarted, but that things have changed. Romania is sufficiently prepared to be a member state. Up to and after the accession, it will continue to build on that reform. We have bet on the good guys in Romania winning.”
New EU role
When Poland joined in 2004, the then Polish Government and Presidency were quite defiant in pushing forward their agenda as one of the largest players in the EU policy and politics: is this a path Romania could follow, as the seventh largest member state?
“This does not automatically mean the country is seventh in the hierarchy, unless what Romania is saying can make sense and can convince others,” says Scheele. “First the country needs to know what kind of Romania it wants to be before it can expect to have a serious impact on Europe.”
Where the nation could influence European policy is in developments of the Black Sea region. In June 2006 Romania aimed to bring together heads of state from the region to the first Black Sea Forum for dialogue and partnership. However absent leaders at the Bucharest forum included Turkey, which sent a minister of state, and Russia, which dispatched its Romanian Ambassador as an observer.
“The more coherent Romania’s concept of how to deal with the issues [of the Black Sea] is, the better it can convince member states that what it is proposing makes sense, the more successful it will be in moving its Black Sea agenda forward,” says Scheele. “The challenge is to have a vision that will not be perceived by Russia as inimical to its interests. The vision must engage Turkey and Russia.”
Another priority is the Republic of Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe and the site of a 15-year frozen conflict, the self-proclaimed republic of Transnistria.
“Moldova was, I think, for too long rather neglected by the EU during the 1990s,” says Scheele. “It has become a much more significant issue over the last three to four years. EU involvement through border assistance mission has become quite significant. Clearly Romania has, by its history, a special relationship which will never be easy and is slightly different from other countries. Romania has something to bring towards supporting the development of Moldova.”
What is that?
“Let’s see,” says Scheele.
But he will not elaborate on specifically what that could be.
“The best help to the Republic of Moldova is for Romania to show [from its own experience] what can be done given the right circumstances in economic, social and political development,” says Scheele. “It is far from realisation, but has the potential to be a model for many countries in the region.”
Romania’s road to accession has been laid with traps and stumbling blocks.
Scheele says that the 1990s was largely a lost decade in terms of real reforms implemented in Romania, which did not begin until 2000.
During the Iliescu-Nastase regime, the economic reforms were carried out to a very great extent, says Scheele. “It was slower in carrying through other reforms in the system and only really started to understand what was needed later on,” he adds.
There were moments in early 2004 when Scheele had the impression that things were not moving forward. This was backed up by a bad European Parliament Report that highlighted major problems.
“I was quite dubious about the possibility of concluding negotiations that year,” says Scheele. “Even with the progress made in Summer 2004 it was very difficult to close some of the chapters. Early 2004 was a difficult time. It led to a recognition by the Romanian Government that it had to establish some credibility because it was losing credibility.”
One of these was the judicial reform package.
“That was the beginning of turning the corner,” says Scheele.
Although he had occasional doubts about Romania’s fitness to join on 1 January 2007, in the last year he has been “pretty optimistic” about the date.
“Not so much because there was a hidden agenda in Brussels that said whatever they do, we’ll let them inside in 2007,” he says, “but much more because I had faith in the capacity of Romania to deliver.”
In political reform, there is still some cleaning up to do. This includes Romania’s need to establish an ‘Integrity Agency’ to monitor the incompatibility between some politicians’ declared and actual wealth. This would investigate apparent imprecise asset declarations and refer these to criminal agencies.
But is there enough evidence to indicate that there are parliamentarians who have many undeclared assets?
“Romania is always full of rumours,” says Scheele. “That’s why it makes sense to have some sort of body which checks asset declarations.”
The remit of the agency will need a vote in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, which makes the final decision. But there is a fear that the proposals, when entering the legislative mincing machine, might lose some of their meat.
“Concerns expressed by senior commissioners did relate to the perception that the proposals were being watered down,” says Scheele.
There are also no high level corruption cases that have seen a sentencing. The EU cannot interfere in domestic justice nor request a ‘quota of sharks’ that Romania must convict. Instead it can only ‘express concern’ that none of the current haul of criminals has contained any big fish. Partly, says Scheele, this is due to the slowness of the system.
“In the view of experts there are too many procedural issues in open court,” says Scheele “This takes longer, ties up more resources for judiciary prosecutors and defenders which could be better spent in dealing with substance.”
The solution would be to take much of the procedural activity out of open court and placing it into chambers – out of the public and into the more informal and private sphere - so that the open court can concentrate on the substance of the case.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” says Scheele.
Bribery is still an issue in much of Romanian public and political life. Asked whether he has ever been a victim of corruption, Scheele says: “No one has ever tried to bribe me. I think they felt it would be a waste of time.”
In five years in Romania, Scheele has only had one brush with the local police. In Transylvania, while driving his car, the vehicle skidded on ice and turned on its side.
“I didn’t hit anyone else,” he said. “But I shouldn’t have put myself in such a situation.”
The traffic cop who attended Scheele was helpful, but when the EC boss offered the policeman some money to buy himself a drink, the public worker refused.
“He knew who I was,” says Scheele. “So maybe he thought it would be wise.”
Scheele’s next step is a return to Brussels to work in the Directorate General for Trans-European Networks, but he will miss some aspects of Romania.
“Romania is never humdrum,” he says. “Just when you think nothing is going to happen, something always does. I will miss the Romanians – they are warm, will talk to you and are quite down to earth. And I will miss living in a country where the EU has such a high reputation – perhaps an undeservedly high one.”
By Michael Bird
What is left to do?
Before accession: Money for farmers
Romania has to complete work on a system for making sure those working in agriculture can receive payments from the EU. “How well and how fast it can do this will depend on Romania’s capacity to ensure that the benefits for Romanian farmers for accession are available immediately and fully,” says Scheele.
After accession: Justice and corruption
The Government must consolidate the current justice and anti-corruption reforms and make sure parliamentary decisions do not dilute or disregard them, says Scheele.
Four of 14 members of the Superior Council of the Magistrates (CSM), the final body for disciplining judges or prosecutors, occupy positions in courts around the country. If a judge is then reprimanded by a member of the CSM who is also his boss, then a conflict of interest emerges. “This could create problems,” says Scheele.
By 2009 all will be obliged to work full-time.
“Full-time members have a lot to do,” says Scheele. “You will not find them sitting around and twiddling their thumbs.”
On 31 March 2007 the EU will issue a monitoring report on the state of the fight against corruption and judicial reform.