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Romania: President Traian Basescu Speaks With RFE/RL

(RFE/RL) BUCHAREST, September 26, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Romanian President Traian Basescu spoke today with RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc. The interview came on the same day that the European Commission announced Romania and Bulgaria are on track to join the European Union in January 2007.

RFE/RL: What is your immediate reaction to the European Commission’s decision?

President Traian Basescu: I am neither skeptical nor optimistic. I am a coolheaded analyst of Romanian realities. First of all, I would say that the conditions for our membership are not particularly tough. Every country that accedes to membership remains under monitoring. We have several unresolved problems, such as establishing and getting EU authorization for agencies that would manage the financial aid for farmers. If by June 1, 2007, we don’t solve these issues, we will only get 75 percent of the money for farming subsidies. So I wouldn’t say that difficult conditions have been imposed on us. What is difficult is what we have to complete once we become EU members.

RFE/RL: After the first drafts of the report emerged, the reaction of the international media was one of skepticism, with some speaking of second-class membership. Will indeed Romania be a second-class member compared to the countries that acceded to the EU on May 1, 2004?

Basescu: There is absolutely no question of such a division among countries. I assure you that, if such an issue had been raised, Romania would not have accepted it as a way of tackling [the membership] negotiations. The reality is that Europe is now more skeptical. Europe is now experiencing a crisis of self-confidence -- a crisis caused by the fact that there is no clear view of future solutions. There are problems with the EU constitution; with the future of EU expansion; with the functionality of European structures, which have become extremely bureaucratic. Amid such problems, it is only normal that enthusiasm toward new members should diminish, and even the new members themselves seem to suffer from a lack of enthusiasm.

"But, if we will think that once we have been admitted, there is nothing more to do, failure is guaranteed. That’s why I am aware of the fact that after January 1, 2007, we will have to complete the integration process. Admission is one thing; integration is something different."

That does not mean that there is no more interest in membership. It only means we are evaluating more rationally the whole admission process. As far as we are concerned, Romania’s admission into the European Union does not represent the end of the road. It is just a foundation which, if we will continue reforms with enough speed, will turn Romania into a successful country. But, if we will think that once we have been admitted, there is nothing more to do, failure is guaranteed. That’s why I am aware of the fact that after January 1, 2007, we will have to complete the integration process. Admission is one thing; integration is something different. Under no circumstances will salaries be higher on January 1, 2007, compared to those of December 31, 2006.

RFE/RL: Then how well prepared is Romania to absorb the psychological, social, and financial costs of EU membership?

Basescu: I think Romania is relatively well prepared. It will rest with us politicians to explain to Romanians that New Year’s Eve 2007 will be just an ordinary night and nothing extraordinary will happen except that we have one more reason why we should mobilize to modernize our country. Any other approach is wrong.

RFE/RL: It looks as if some Romanians are prepared to pack their luggage that night and go west the next morning. At the same time, some EU countries have said that they intend to impose restrictions on workers coming from Romania and Bulgaria. You have warned that if such restrictions are imposed on Romanians, Bucharest will retaliate in kind, and your statement was much publicized in the West. Would it be wise of Romania to resort to such measures? Wouldn’t it be counterproductive?

Basescu: I think that the expression "retaliate" was used only by the media. What I said was what I am saying now is that Romania will not accept being discriminated against in comparison with other new members. We hope that in bilateral relations with member states we will achieve a balance that would not turn Romania into a second-class member. If [some] will insist, then we will activate the condition that allows reciprocal restrictions. Of course, we will do that primarily at the political level, because we will place our reaction in the zone of politics. Romania has neither interest nor reasons to block the access of EU businessmen to investment opportunities, to block the access of cultural exchanges, of students to come and study here. But politically, we will respond in kind.

RFE/RL: At the beginning of your mandate in December 2004, you said one of your top priorities would be to establish a special partnership with the United States and Britain, which you referred to as the Bucharest-London-Washington axis. How will your country’s new EU membership weigh upon your special relationship with the United States?

Basescu: Our policy toward the United States remains unchanged. We will continually consolidate our strategic partnership with the United States. Inside the European Union, we will behave like a very good European -- a country which by tradition is European cannot militate against the good of Europe. We will support the necessity of a partnership between the European Union and the United States. Europe needs a special relationship with the United States, and the United States equally needs such a partnership with Europe.”

President Basescu (right) meeting with Romanian troops in Iraq in March (AFP)

RFE/RL: You have launched a diplomatic offensive to include Romania in the Transdniester negotiations process and to reevaluate the strategic importance of the Black Sea region. Romania is already a NATO member, and will soon be the eastern-most EU member. What impact will this have on political developments farther east -- in Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, or the Caucasus?

Basescu: Well, the new reality will most likely influence EU policy as a whole. Until now, the responsibility for what was happening in the Black Sea region rested on Russia and Turkey, mainly, while Romania, as a NATO member and a prospective EU member, was trying to stir the EU’s interest for the region. From the moment Romania becomes a member, it is clear that the European Union itself will have a border with the Black Sea and its problems, which are not few: frozen conflicts, massive human trafficking from the former Soviet Republics to Europe, arms trafficking, drugs trafficking, which has as final destination EU member states, including Romania.

These problems will become EU problems, especially since Europe gets more than 50 percent of its energy from this region. And, paradoxically, as if by God’s grace, the most viable alternative solutions are also in the Black Sea region -- I mean the oil reserves from the Caspian. The main problem is how we will bring these resources of oil and gas from the Caspian toward Europe without using the current distribution system. In other words, how we can establish an alternative to the current domination of [Russian state-controlled energy giant] Gazprom.

RFE/RL: Are you still for Romania’s direct involvement in the Transdniester negotiations process?

Basescu: Well, this is an issue which has already been decided. Romania was part of the process in 1991 and withdrew. Afterward, it did not manage to get back in. It may be bad, it may be good, but Romania is being represented anyway, since we put at the disposal of our allies -- the United States and the EU, which both have observer status, and the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], which is directly involved in the negotiations -- all our expertise, and we will keep doing that.

RFE/RL: Russia has reacted rather skeptically to Romania’s regional initiatives, and bilateral relations are still cool, despite your visit to Moscow in early 2005. Do you have a strategy for better relations with Moscow?

Basescu: Attempts to improve relations with Russia will remain a constant of our foreign policy. There were, of course icy moments in bilateral relations, and there still is likely a lack of trust in this area. Romanian diplomacy has work to do in this respect to achieve a partnership, if you will, which can be useful for the Black Sea region.

RFE/RL: Romania’s EU membership seems to bring more immediate restrictions than advantages for Moldovans, as well as Ukrainians, who are faced with travel restrictions. How do you see relations with both Moldova and Ukraine in the future?

Basescu: There are three countries where the Romanian community is extremely sizeable: Moldova; Ukraine, [particularly] the province of northern Bukovina in Ukraine [which was part of Romania before World War II], and Serbia, with the Timok River region and the [province of] Serbian Banat. We are already holding talks with the European Commission to find a formula that will not lead to a blockage in the relations of Romanians living in neighboring countries with their motherland. Before the end of the year, I hope we will find together with the European Commission a formula that will not make our neighbors’ lives more difficult.

"The main problem is how we will bring these resources of oil and gas from the Caspian toward Europe without using the current distribution system. In other words, how we can establish an alternative to the current domination of [Russian state-controlled energy giant] Gazprom."

RFE/RL: You have rejected calls by government officials for the withdrawal of Romanian troops from Iraq. How long do you think Romania should stay in Iraq and in Afghanistan?

Basescu: We are under no pressure in Afghanistan. That is an action in which many NATO countries are involved -- whether we are talking about France, Germany, Romania, the United States, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Belgium -- in an effort based on UN resolutions that has to be completed.

As far as our presence in Iraq is concerned, our position is clear: we will not turn our backs and leave our allies saying we are fed up with Iraq and want to go home. We have given our word and have to respect that. As for the timeframe for our withdrawal from Iraq, that depends of two essential conditions: one, that the Iraqi government takes over our zone of responsibility and tell us that it does not require the assistance of our forces anymore, and two, that we agree with our allies that Romania’s presence in Iraq is no longer needed. In this respect, I can tell you that we are not at the peak of our participation in Iraq anymore. In June, we withdrew some 130 troops and 80 more were withdrawn in August. However, we will not unilaterally decide overnight that we are leaving and we will not tell our allies, "Look, we are going home -- it’s your business from now on."

RFE/RL: Will you keep troops in Iraq even if the public pressure for withdrawal will increase?

Basescu: Polls show that our presence in Iraq is not popular, and such public support is not very comfortable for politicians. But our participation in Iraq is a pledge of honor for Romania and must be respected.

EU Expands Eastward

EU Expands Eastward

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