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Romania: Brussels' Tough Stance Sends Clear Signal To Other EU Hopefuls

  • Eugen Tomiuc

The European Union is demanding that candidate country Romania provide urgent information on the adoption of many Romanian children abroad despite a 2001 moratorium. The request follows a call from European Parliament's rapporteur on Romania to suspend membership negotiations with Bucharest unless more reforms are implemented, including measures to protect children's rights. The unprecedented call raises the issue of whether the EU integration process for candidate countries is reversible.

Prague, 5 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union says it has requested urgent clarification from the Romanian government regarding the continuation of adoptions abroad despite a 2001 moratorium.

Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen has sent a letter to Prime Minister Adrian Nastase demanding explanations about reports that more than 100 Romanian children have been sent to Italy under unclear circumstances.

The letter follows harsh criticism by the European Parliament's rapporteur for Romania, Emma Nicholson, who accused Romania of violating the moratorium on foreign adoptions. She warned that the European Parliament could recommend admission talks be suspended "unless the country's reform process is put back on track."

European Commission spokesman Diego de Ojeda told RFE/RL that the commission wants the moratorium enforced until the legal framework and administrative apparatus are strong enough to ensure the children's protection. "This is an issue of concern -- the fact that the rights of the children to be adopted should be fully respected," he said. "And, therefore, our position on the matter is that the moratorium that has been in place for some time should remain until satisfactory legislation has been adopted by the Romanian authorities and, as importantly, appropriate administrative capacity is also put in place to ensure the full respect of the rights of these children. In his letter, Mr. Verheugen has been asking for some information and clarification on a number of elements that we expect to receive from the Romanian authorities as a matter of urgency."

"The Daily Telegraph," a British newspaper, reported that Verheugen's letter went as far as to warn about a "recovery of funds" already spent by the EU -- some $75 million -- to help Romania cope with its institutionalized children. Nastase's spokeswoman admitted in a letter to the newspaper today that Verheugen's message does mention "a possible recovery of funds if accusations regarding illegal adoptions prove true."

Romania is expected to join the EU in 2007 at the earliest, and Bucharest expects to wrap up negotiations by the end of this year. But Nicholson said in a statement yesterday that Bucharest has failed to do enough to fight endemic corruption, to reform its judiciary and administration, and to protect the rights of children. Nicholson said that unless Romania does more, there is what she called a "strong likelihood" that the European Parliament will recommend to the commission that membership talks "be put on ice."

Nastase's Social Democrat government, which is up for re-election this year, has admitted that some 857 children have been adopted abroad since the moratorium, including the 105 to Italy. But it argued that all had been "pipeline cases," close to being finalized when the moratorium came into effect. Bucharest also promised to speed up the reform of its corruption-riddled judiciary and reinforce the moratorium on adoptions.

Romania's chief negotiator with the EU, Vasile Puscas, today told RFE/RL: "What we will do now is to implement very strictly the action plan regarding the reform strategy of the judiciary, and, of course, our answer will be the implementation of the acquis [communitaire, the European Union's body of laws], which has already been adopted into our legal system -- the implementation on the ground. Regarding the judiciary, several very important laws are expected. Regarding the situation of abandoned children, we will continue the policy which we began in 2001, to put stress first of all on child care outside the institutionalized system."

The EU itself came under criticism for lacking a common approach regarding the foreign adoptions issue, with countries such as Spain or Italy appearing favorable to a more relaxed policy.

Puscas said the lack of a common policy has posed difficulties for Romania. "There is no acquis in the EU regarding the [adoption] theme," he said. "We base our work mainly on the UN documents and the human rights chart, but there are different opinions among the EU member states. It has been very difficult to reach consensus, not on the Romanian side, but on the EU members' side. Now we have asked that the EU also express a very clear position."

Analysts say it is not uncommon for the EU to send warning letters to candidate countries when they do not fulfill the political criteria for membership. Analyst Heather Grabbe of the London-based Center for European Reform (CER) said such letters have been sent in the past to Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. But Grabbe told RFE/RL that it is the first time that a candidate has come so close to having the EU consider the issue of suspending negotiations. "The EU has not got a common position on this [suspension issue] yet, and even the commission itself hasn't taken a clear line of saying that it is going to suspend negotiations [with Romania]," she said. "But it's true this is the first time that a candidate country has been so close to the commission having to look at the question of suspending negotiations. It's primarily because of action by the [European] Parliament."

Grabbe says that by mentioning the possibility -- however remote -- of a suspension of negotiations, the EU has sent a strong signal to all current and future EU hopefuls that they have to strictly observe the political criteria. Turkey, which is a candidate but has yet to be given a clear date to start admission talks, has had a difficult time fulfilling the political criteria.

"The EU has, in fact, shown itself in the past to be willing to enforce its political conditionality, and I think it will do so in future, definitely with Turkey," Grabbe said. "Turkey has to fulfill the political conditions before it can begin negotiations, and the EU is keeping a very close eye on that. So the commission will come up with a report in the autumn in which they will say whether or not they think Turkey has met the political conditions. But even if the country is said to have met the conditions and actually started negotiations, as Romania has done and as Turkey will do at some point, even after that, the conditions are not deemed to have been met forever."

Grabbe concluded that the European Commission does not appear to be trying to present Romania as a negative example to others. But the European Parliament has reiterated that it remains very keen that candidates not only must meet all the technical conditions, but also the political conditions.