Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase today ended a visit to Germany designed to secure more Western support for Romania's efforts to join the European Union and NATO. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told Nastase that Germany backs Romania's efforts, but pointed out that it still has a long way to go before it fulfills EU membership criteria.
Prague, 5 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- During his three-day visit to Germany, Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase met with top German officials in an effort to secure more political and economic support for his country's bid to gain membership in both the European Union and NATO.
Nastase had talks yesterday in Berlin with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Afterwards, he emphasized his government's commitment to reform and its determination to bring Romania closer to the EU and NATO. Nastase said Romania needs Germany's political and economic support.
"I want to reiterate that we are counting -- to an enormous extent -- on Germany's support both in our economic reform efforts and in our foreign-policy projects."
Romania, one of the poorest former communist countries, is trailing the other 11 -- mostly Eastern European -- EU candidate states. After a decade of stop-and-go reforms, two-thirds of Romania's economy is still state-owned, and overall production has dropped to 75 percent of its 1989 level. The average monthly wage is about $100, and inflation runs at an annual rate of 45 percent. Romania has attracted only some $7 billion in foreign investment over the last 10 years.
In the six months since he took office, Nastase and his Social Democratic Party have pressed ahead with economic and administrative reforms in an attempt to put Romania back on track for EU admission. The economy grew by almost 5 percent in the first quarter of the year, and forecasts say inflation will drop to 30 percent this year.
Several months ago, Nastase said that Romania would push for EU membership as early as 2007 -- a date regarded with some skepticism by EU officials. But in Berlin, Nastase brought the target date even closer, saying that Romania now aims to close admission talks in 2004 and to become a full EU member in 2006.
Chancellor Schroeder yesterday acknowledged that Romania has improved its reform record and backed what he called Romania's "wish" to join the EU. But he pointed out that Bucharest still has a long way to go before it meets the EU's economic criteria for membership.
"Germany supports Romania's wish to become an EU member, and we are aware of the fact that conditions have improved [in Romania] due to notable progress in reforms. But we both agreed that substantial efforts are needed to turn this political will into an economic reality."
Besides gaining EU membership, Romania is interested in joining NATO. This year Bucharest has boosted its defense spending to 4 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in an effort to upgrade its military before NATO leaders meet next year to consider the membership hopes of nine ex-communist candidate countries -- Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Macedonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
During his talks with Schroeder yesterday, Nastase reiterated Romania's arguments for joining the military alliance. He said that economic and political support for Romania would contribute to stability in the volatile Balkans.
"I would mention that we have discussed the regional situation and the role Romania can play in a region where things are quite complicated -- the elections in Albania and Bulgaria, the situation in Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro. Taking all this into account, it is obvious that economic and political investment in Romania actually means an investment in the region's stability."
Schroeder echoed NATO's official line that the alliance's door "remains open" to all candidates. But he stopped short of explicitly endorsing Romania's bid or suggesting any specific date.
"NATO announced at its Washington summit in 1999 that the door remains open for new members. That is why it makes little sense in this situation to talk now about a date or a deadline. But I believe that Romania's wish to improve its security by joining the alliance must be respected. I have told the prime minister that Germany will support the open-door policy in Romania's case as well."
Nastase's visit was also aimed at making Romania more attractive to German investors -- and in this area it was more successful.
In the late 1960s and early '70s, Romania's communist rulers modernized the country's industry, based mostly on German-made technology. But a subsequent freeze in economic relations with the West led to much of Romanian industry becoming obsolete. Recently, Romanian companies have been anxious to resume long-severed business ties with Germany.
To coincide with the visit, German and Romanian companies signed commercial deals worth more than $430 million (1 billion German marks).
Germany already is Romania's second-largest trading partner -- after Italy -- and is also the second-biggest foreign investor in the country's economy. German direct investment in the country grew more than threefold in the last five years, but -- at only $720 million -- it is still modest.
In turn, Romania is Germany's seventh-biggest trading partner in Eastern and Central Europe, with German exports to Romania having grown by 25 percent last year.
Among the largest deals completed during Nastase's visit was a $210 million order placed with the engineering giant Siemens by Romanian railways for 120 diesel train engines, and a $60 million contract won by a German power company to modernize a Romanian fossil fuel-fired power plant.
In addition, the German gas group Ruhrgas signed a strategic partnership agreement with its Romanian counterpart Congaz, acquiring a 28 percent stake in the company for some $5 million.
Meeting with German businessmen, Nastase pointed to Romania's recently approved law on foreign investment, which for the first time allows investors to transfer their profits abroad. The law also provides for tax breaks of up to four years for investment in key economic sectors.
Romania is the only EU candidate country whose citizens still need visas to travel to Western Europe. Last week (on 29 June), after much debate, the European Commission -- the EU's executive arm -- recommended lifting the visa regime for Romanian citizens within the nine-country Schengen zone as of January. The recommendation was based on the country's recent progress in border and immigration control.
But the move must still be endorsed by all 15 EU member governments. German backing is crucial for Bucharest, since most illegal immigrants who transit Romania are headed for Germany.
Nastase discussed with German authorities ways to speed up Romanian citizens' visa-free access to EU countries.
German officials -- including Chancellor Schroeder -- expressed the hope the visa problem could be solved by the end of the year. But they stressed that it will be up to the Romanian authorities to improve border controls, so that visas restrictions can be lifted without fear of increased illegal immigration to Germany and the rest of Western Europe.