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Romania: EU Enlargement Commissioner Says Bucharest Must Press Ahead With Reform

European Union Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, who is on a two-day visit to Romania (26-27 April), says the Balkan country is showing signs of economic recovery after three years of recession. But Verheugen warned Romania that it must speed up short-term economic and administrative reforms and improve conditions for its Roma minority if it wants to increase its chances of being admitted into the EU. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports:

Prague, 27 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- During his two-day visit to Romania (26-27 April) European Union Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen assessed the country's progress toward EU accession under its new leftist government, and told Romanian officials that they must push ahead with short-term reforms.

Verheugen welcomed the tentative reforms of the government of Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who took office last December, but said the changes were just the beginning of "a long process."

Romania was invited to open EU accession talks in December 1999 together with Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Malta. But the country was slow to enact economic and institutional reforms, and a European Commission -- the EU's executive body -- report last November ranked it last among all 12 candidates. Romania, a country of 22 million, is the second most populous candidate nation after Poland, but is also the poorest, with an average per capita monthly income of about $100. Addressing the Romanian parliament, EU's Verheugen said the 15-nation bloc does not expect "miracles" from Romania, but wants clear proof that the Balkan country will undertake concrete short-term economic and administrative reforms.

"The EU does not expect to see miracles from one day to the other. What we want to see is clear and unequivocal direction -- and proof that substantial reforms can be delivered already in the short term. It will be particularly important to make progress in two key areas: economic reform and reform of the public administration."

Verheugen's stance was in line with his previous statement two months ago in Brussels, when he bluntly told Prime Minister Nastase the EU was interested in results, rather than declarations, from his government.

Now, 100 days since Nastase's leftist cabinet took office, the first modest signs of economic progress have become visible -- albeit partly due to measures taken by previous governments. In its economic forecast for the candidate countries, the European Commission this week said that the Romanian economy last year grew by some 1.6 percent after a three-year recession, and that the growth was expected to continue in 2001 -- though at the same modest rate.

Verheugen said that the economic upturn was only the first step in a long process and that Romania must complete the sale of its largest state-owned industries -- including the country's largest firm, the Sidex steel mill -- and push ahead with the privatization of the country's banking system.

Referring to Romania's aim of entering the EU in 2007, Verheugen said it was more important to ensure concrete results in the next two years than to set timetables.

"When EU concludes negotiations with the most advanced countries in 2002, Romania will want to show that she too has made substantial progress -- and I tell you, you have the potential to do that. Romania will certainly want to show that she's serious about her accession prospects. I very much welcome the Romanian government's commitment to be judged on its action rather than on its promises."

Verheugen also stressed that Romania had numerous social issues in addition to its economic problems. He noted that although Romania has fulfilled the political criteria for EU admission, other areas of concern -- like child welfare and racial discrimination -- remain:

"Romania already meets the political criteria -- but there should be no room for complacency. For instance, further efforts are needed to improve the treatment of institutionalized children in Romania."

After the fall of communism, the former Soviet-bloc country gained notoriety worldwide for its numerous orphanages where children -- many infected with the HIV virus -- were kept in sometimes horrific conditions. The EU called for the closure of these state-run institutions when it began accession talks last year. Although the situation has improved, Romania still has more than 30,000 children living in state orphanages.

Verheugen praised Romania for improving its treatment of ethnic minorities. Last week Romanian President Ion Iliescu signed a new local public administration law, which grants ethnic minorities the right to use their language in local administration -- a measure generally seen as an important step in improving the situation of the country's almost two million ethnic Hungarians. The law has aroused protests from the ultra-nationalist Greater Romania Party -- the second largest in parliament, with some 120 mandates in the 481-seat legislature.

But Verheugen said the government must also improve economic and social conditions for its Roma minority. According to official statistics, 400,000 Roma live in Romania, but their actual numbers are believed to be considerably larger.

"Another important issue is the treatment of the Roma minority. This is a problem shared by many candidate countries, and by some member states as well."

The EU official also emphasized the importance of maintaining an independent judiciary. His remark was seen as a first signal that the EU was worried by recent dismissals of top-level Romanian judges and prosecutors -- including head military prosecutor Dan Voinea, who investigated politicians close to President Iliescu.

But after talks with Iliescu and Prime Minster Nastase, Verheugen said the Romanian officials gave him assurances that the judiciary was independent and not subject to political pressure.

However, analysts and opposition politicians lately have accused the government of meddling in judicial matters after Justice Minister Rodica Stanoiu "recommended" that judges take into account what she called the tenants' "situation" when dealing with property restitution cases. Critics say that the property restitution law, approved earlier this year, already favors tenants who live in houses nationalized by the former communist regime.

Verheugen also mentioned that Romania has to bring its legislation in line with that of the EU. But he emphasized that opening negotiations with the 15-member bloc on as many legal chapters as possible "should not become a goal in itself" for any of the candidate countries. Instead they should implement crucial reforms more efficiently and quickly.

But the EU commissioner said despite serious difficulties Romania's membership was "no longer a question of 'if,' but of 'when.'" Still, he said a realistic deadline for Romania's EU accession depends on the country's progress in implementing economic and administrative reform in the next two years.