In the old town square under a hill that displays the city's name Hollywood-style, a folk singer on an open-air stage is entertaining the tourists as well as the locals, many of whom are walking their dogs.
Historic Moment Approaches
The scene would be familiar in many Western European cities. But this is Brasov, the largest city in the Romanian province of Transylvania. And the time is just hours before the European Commission's much anticipated report which likely will invite the former communist country to join the EU on January 1, 2007.
Romania, a country of 22 million that is about the size of Great Britain, was for years the laggard of the eastern bloc, both during communism and after its fall. Although Romania has been a candidate since 1999, EU membership looked for most Romanians like an impossible dream -- even though up to 80 percent of them have remained staunch supporters of it.
But over the past five years, the economy began recovering, with a current annual growth rate of more than 7 percent, and the new centrist administration of President Traian Basescu has managed to make substantial progress in bringing legislation in line with EU norms. That includes fighting corruption and reforming the judiciary, areas where the country was lagging.
Bills Coming Due
However, now that the dream is about to be fulfilled, Romanians have started paying more attention to the fine print of the membership. They are mentally totaling up what it will cost Romania even as it hopes to qualify for sizeable EU subsidies and funds which could total some 600 billion euros ($766 billion) over the next seven years.
Tudor Cernea, a 38-year-old economist, is aware that membership could mean sacrifices for many sectors that will have to streamline in order to become competitive and cost-efficient.
the rest of Europe, and of course we don't...[want] to stay in Romania
and work for salaries 10 or 15 times smaller."
"I am not a Euroskeptic, but how should I say it? There are costs which have to be paid," Cernea says. "And once there [in the EU] those costs must be paid."
Aurel, a college student who studies mechanical engineering in Brasov, is also aware that Romania is still well behind other members and it will take time. "They [the EU] have high standards, and we will need some years to catch up with the rest of it," he says.
Signs Of Progress
Can Romania afford to pay for membership? Well, the change in the country's landscape is encouraging.
Horse-drawn carts still roll lazily along bad roads, but the carts are fewer, and the roads are not as bad as several years ago. Homeless children still jump in front of foreign cars stopped at traffic lights to beg for a dollar, or more recently, for a euro -- but they are not that many anymore.
And, yes, on some streets, if you drive, stray dogs will still bark at you -- or even worse, if you walk. But even their numbers are dwindling, and the streets' lanes are marked in white paint -- for the first time in recent memory.
Furthermore, since the EU opened it borders to Romanians in 2002, some 2 million left the country to do menial work mainly in Spain and Italy, bringing billions of dollars back to the country.
Teodora, a 20-year-old who studies international relations, says many youths are forced to leave because the salaries, while doubled over the past years to some $200 per month, are still very small.
"A majority of young people would like to stay in Romania and work here in the field they studied," she says. "But the problem is that in Romania, salaries are many times smaller than in the rest of Europe, and of course we don't -- since we are at the beginning of our lives and want to have a future -- to stay in Romania and work for salaries 10 or 15 times smaller."
The perspective of a workers' exodus from the second-largest new member after Poland has alarmed some EU members, who threatened to introduce drastic restrictions on admitting workers from Romanian in 2007. President Basescu caused international furor when he said earlier this month that Romania would reciprocate.
Tudor Cernea's wife, Laura, who is a jewelry maker, says Basescu is right. "Yes, under certain circumstances why not? Why let them bring here to our market everything and everyone that they don't need anymore, while we wouldn't be allowed to go there? I think imposing restrictions would be normal," she says.
Threat Of Competition
While some EU member countries are worried that imported, cheaper Romanian labor might leave their own workers unemployed, small Romanian entrepreneurs are worried that membership will put them out of business.
Zsolt has a small construction company in Sfantu Gheorghe, a city of some 60,000 mostly ethnic Hungarians 35 kilometers northeast of Brasov. He says that for him and his 16 employees, upcoming membership will bring trouble.
be good. It may not be felt very soon, but in 10-15 years,
we will feel [the benefits]."
"The first threat comes from the big international companies that have already begun to set foot in Romania," Zsolt says. "Inevitably, the big fish will swallow the small fish. These are the rules of competition."
Equally skeptical of membership are the elderly. Marius, 64, also from Sfantu Gheorghe, says that whatever benefits the EU will bring will come too late for those like him.
"At my age, I don't know to what extent I will be able to benefit from the advantages of EU membership," he says. "These advantages will be seen no sooner than 20 years. Or, in 20 years, I will be 80."
EU Is Best Alternative For The Future
However, despite the real or perceived hardships that membership will bring, people in the two neighboring cities admit that there is no alternative to the EU.
"Because it is normal to integrate within a system that works, first of all," economist Cernea says. "We cannot be left outside [even though] everything has a price."
College student Aurel says he remains in favor of membership, although he may have to wait to reap the benefits. "Even if it is going to be a difficult step for Romania, it will still be good," he says. "It may not be felt very soon, but in 10-15 years, we will feel [the benefits]."
Businessman Zsolt says he is still in favor of membership, despite its negative impact on his business. Integration within the European Union "is the only solution for our children, and for the youth of today," the father of three says.