Scholar: EU backslides from diversity to differentiation

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There is a tendency in the EU, especially when dealing with Central and Eastern Europe, to turn the reality of the European diversity into a differentiation policy, says Vasile Puşcaş, a Romanian scholar and diplomat who was his country’s chief negotiator in the EU accession talks.

Vasile Puşcaş is a professor in the European Affairs Faculty at Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He is also a politician from the Romanian Social-Democrat party (PSD). He spoke to EurActiv Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

Can you comment on the recent news that Romania is about to lose 7 billion of EU funding under operational programmes for transport and competition? Why has Romania been such a bad performer in absorbing EU funds?

A very simple answer is that post-accession Romanian governments haven't utilised EU funds like investment instruments useful for a real development of the country, but were dominated by a welfare-like mentality of "we must take the European money."

Instead of systematic and coherent implementation of the strategic options within the Multiannual Financial Framework 2007-2013, the Romanian authorities have seen the structural funds only for a short-term financial opportunity. In other words, Romanian leaders haven't internalised the goals and objectives of European policies, they haven't insisted on developing European public goals in Romania and private companies had to evolve in an unpredictable economic environment where all they could do was to survive a short period of time.

Hence the characteristics of the Romanian governance: weak administrative capacity, excessive politicisation instead of implementing public policies, disputes instead of cooperation, partnership and coordination, poor oversight of conflicts of interest, disregard of the principles, rules and procedures of public procurement, corruption etc.

In one word, the Romanian leaders offered a clear ‘not like that’ case study when it comes to the programmes financed with EU funds in the budget period 2007-2013.

Of course Romanian citizens are wondering how such a thing was possible, especially for it was one of the first impressions we created as a new member of the EU.

Extending this question, I think we should verify how the Romania-EU partnership works when it comes to the European institutions in this particular area, what efforts have been made in order to streamline the implementation of European policies, or if they were simply replaced by the partisan rhetoric.

What does Romania expect from the EU budget for 2014-2020? More broadly, what does your country expect from the EU in terms of common policies, of major goals to be reached together?

The future EU budget [2014-2020] should be consistently oriented towards strengthening the global competitiveness of the EU. Also, there is a real need for sustainable growth and development.

I believe in the option for more economic and financial integration but we mustn't forget that mistakes and delays from the past decade will bring enormous costs for member countries, companies and European citizens.

A non-rhetorical question is about who amongst the European political leaders will engage in managing such costs? And I ask this because I've noticed that, after the Cold War, today's Western politicians are only used to managed opportunities!

On the other hand, decision-making experience of the past years shows ‘pragmatic’ European leaders - that's how [former Commission President] Jacques Delors called them - who use the European opportunities to satisfy only national/local interests and are not paying enough attention to the role of joint effort and especially the development of European interest. They should, at least as a response to the globalisation challenges!

In such a context, Romania, with its specific characteristics, is forced to insist on an EU budget programming and for substantial common EU policies aimed to support credible strategic efforts directed towards growth and sustainable development.

In the same time, following a realistic timetable for convergence and competitiveness, Romania should gain support for an accelerated development of areas of competitive advantage. This will allow us to contribute to European competitiveness.

Do you fear for the unity of the EU, for the downgrading of the role of the non-eurozone countries?

In an era where the most common response to globalisation is regional integration, and the EU is often the positive example, European ‘pragmatic’ leaders sometimes sent signals of disintegration. This shows that they are moving  backwards from the restructuring of the international system and it's reflected on the EU's decreased capacity to influence global decisions in the last few years. This is why your question is legitimate.

And my answer is that I am not afraid of a weakening of the EU's unity (it is possible to occur in a certain situation) because it is only natural to reach, at some point, an intensification of European integration and unity.

However, what concerns me is the opportunistic-utilitarian attitude of the European leadership. They seem willingly to transfer huge costs into the account of the European citizens in order to ensure political/electoral success.

Their parochial inconsequence only creates local chimerical hopes and it would sacrifice the goal of European integration and unity for the sake of shallow battles for power. They are in total disagreement with the attitude of a rational actor obliged and interested to govern for the public good, for the good of the citizens.

I already noticed a tendency, especially when dealing with Central-Eastern Europe, to turn the reality of the European diversity into a differentiation policy, using methods long abandoned at the end of the Cold War. Also, the EU economic and monetary reality clearly shows temptations of the member countries - especially those inside the eurozone. They share the same coherence when it comes to the financial and economic policies, but also discrepancies that suggest decreased efficiency and lack of consistency with solid economic and social cohesion policies.

Hence an inexplicable inability of diversity management within the EU; and it’s the same situation when it comes to European interdependence, which is precisely considered to be an area of potential competitive global advantage.

Could the EU's unity hold until a country like Romania would qualify to join the eurozone?

Regarding Romania's aspiration for accession to the eurozone (and also of other new members), I think it is now urgent that they insist on achieving a high degree of real convergence, growth of competitiveness  parameters and a decisive enrolment on the path of sustainable development. Setting a date for eurozone accession is credible only if those performances are reached and we mustn’t forget about the strategic options of the eurozone itself, which have been updated since the original Maastricht criteria. This, in conjunction with the international financial system evolutions, will only amplify the requirements for the candidates.

The fact that the EU’s unity will only lead to even more competitiveness must not be forgotten, but we have to understand this not only regarding to state’s competitiveness but as an attribute of the entire Europe. It will add value to the European integration and also to the European and global interdependencies management efficiency.

What do you think about your country's image in the EU? Do you think the political tensions will decrease, and do you expect the Commission report in December on the cooperation and verification mechanism, to report that business is back to normal?

Recently, a famous newspaper across the Atlantic characterised Romania as a “land of disputes”. It is very clear to me that this image was constructed upon the attitude of political parties and politicians revealing a particular political culture.

Sometimes media report Romanian reality in sensational expressions, restraining everything to the behaviour of individuals or groups belonging to international networks of organised crime.

But, as a British colleague used to say, if you visit Romania it’s likely you won’t find it so bad. This doesn’t mean that one can forget about the “country’s image”. Romania’s image in the EU reveals that, currently, we trusted politicians without proper political culture, one that must be adequate with the epoch … the regional and global context.

Unfortunately, we have to conclude that even young politicians seem to be getting old rapidly and often crooked; this is why we need to demand a greater effort from the intellectual and economical elite and also from the entire nation, in order to accelerate internalisation of European values and policies - those which validated the highest expectations of the European citizens.

I feel that the next [December] report of the European Commission on the cooperation and verification mechanism will be more important for the way Romania is perceived by the other member countries; for the Romanian authorities will count less, due to the incoming electoral campaign for parliamentary elections [on 9 December].

On the other hand, in the previous report, the European Commission had political evaluations and it is expected to do the same. It will be interesting to notice what political options will result from current European values and standards. Personally, I expect from the EC to provide a balanced and objective opinion and, if possible, a guidance and support based on good practices, moral and civic authority, rule of law and genuine European spirit. This is because, in my opinion, prolonging the operation of the cooperation and verification mechanism in Romania and Bulgaria casts a huge shadow upon the EC’s credibility, not only upon capabilities of the Romanian and Bulgarian leaders.

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