I’m in Bucharest, Romania speaking at a conference hosted by the European Ideas Network, which is a center-right think tank affiliated with the European People’s Party (the largest party in the European Parliament). Naturally, much of the discussion here is about the current challenges over the euro. Hundreds of people are in attendance, including several prime ministers, numerous members of the European Parliament from 20 or so countries, various ministry heads, government officials, think tank experts and more. There is much talk here about the need for a greater fiscal union, with the words “United States of Europe” sprinkled liberally within speeches from the main dais, as well as in private conversation. This is coming from European conservatives, mind you, and much of the center-left already has taken a position of “more Europe.” It seems like a consensus, fractious as it may be, is slowly forming in Europe among the political leaders.
But when it comes to forging a United States of anything, the devil is in the details, and it is going to take many years to hammer out those details. These things don’t happen in a year or even two. The public in various E.U. members states is quite skeptical of this project, though one should not underestimate the value of leadership - if it is focused and determined — in convincing a doubtful public. But for those who are looking for a quick resolution to the eurozone situation I say - don’t hold your breath.
Remember, it was that way for young America in the 1780s as well. Creating a political as well as economic union is a complex matter, hardly accomplished by the passage of a constitution or the signing of a treaty. It takes years and a few crises for the new institutions to work out the kinks, and to become something in practice that goes beyond what mere words on the constitution’s pages say.
The conference itself was held in Ceausescu’s “house,”the huge - no, gargantuan - palace to a dictator’s vanity. It is supposedly the second largest building in the world, after the Pentagon (also built to stoke another type of vanity, increasingly one that Americans can’t afford). No question, the palace - which is the seat of the Romanian Parliament - is garishly impressive, mimicking the imperial grandeur of ancient Rome. Ornate columns and white marble are in abundance, sectioned off by royal red carpets and long hallways.
But what is just as striking is that the rooms and hallways are so vast that the Romanian government can barely afford to furnish them. The rooms mostly are empty, it’s like an enormous abandoned mansion of vast barrenness amidst a skeleton of grandeur. And of course it’s a big waste of taxpayers’ money. I’m sure it must have been a difficult decision after the 1989 revolution to decide whether to knock it down or maintain it. The grounds are largely unkempt and the lawns kind of weedy and brown, hardly like the ornate grounds seen in other European capitals, because they can’t afford enough groundskeepers since keeping that mammoth structure fully stocked even with light bulbs must require an enormous crew.
I found Romania itself to be more impressive than its international reputation, but seeing it that way requires a constant reminder that Romania is very much still a “developing country.” And a former communist one at that. It has a fascinating history - I didn’t realize that within its national boundaries are some of the earliest sites of the first homo sapiens sapiens, i.e. Cro-Magnon man in Europe; the Romans occupied much of the country at one point, and spread the Romance languages and other ways that contributed toward a unique culture that today makes it an island in a sea of Slavic countries.
After the Romans withdrew (around 271 AD) came successive hordes of invading tribes like the Goths, Tatars and the Huns, each adding its ingredients to the cultural stew. The Middle Ages were dominated by the usual mix of politics and religion, with artisan and trade guilds being important to the local economies, and finally the entire region fell under the rule of an Ottoman/Turkish occupation which lasted for centuries until a war of independence was fought in Romania in the late 19th century.
After a period of relative stability, Romania experienced several disastrous decades, starting with being sucked into World War II on the Nazi side, then being taken over by the Communists after the war. Flash forward to the Ceausescu dictatorship, which was thuggish and brutal even by communist standards, and which collapsed in spectacular fashion around Christmas time, 1989. The area around where I stayed in Bucharest at the Intercontinental Hotel was one of the major battlegrounds of the revolution. The plaza below my balcony on the 18th floor was the scene of one battle between the protestors and government security forces that resulted in many dead, with eye-witnesses taking photos of the battle right from these balconies. Kind of gives me goose bumps.
So the storied history of the Romanians is a tribute to the capacity of a people to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It’s inclusion in 2007 into the European Union has added immeasurable benefits as well as brighter prospects (including large amounts of Marshall Plan-like development funds, technical expertise and geopolitical stability), yet the current economic crisis has hit Romanians hard.
In response, the government devalued the currency so the prices for many things skyrocketed, and the jobs don’t pay very well so people are coping with all that. Which means that most people don’t have much money to spend. The bars and cafes are all full at night, but people sip on their drinks very slowly. The official unemployment rate is about 7.3 percent - quite a bit less than the US at 9.1 percent - but when I inquire at any cafe or pub, whether in Bucharest or in more rural parts, I get an earful about the economic situation. The government is widely viewed as corrupt, a continuing legacy from the communist years, and so are doctors and other civil servants, who demand bribes in exchange for their services (since doctor’s pay is quite low). One waiter, after building up a head of steam during a gloomy rant against not only the politicans but his fellow Romanians, exclaims, “In Romania everyone steals from everyone. Everyone. I don’t know why.”
Still, I find Bucharest to be a vibrant capital, thoroughly European in its appearance and outlook, and the countryside heading north is beautiful with rolling hills and golden fields of corn leading to the majestic Carpathian Mountains. I drive through village after village lined quaintly with colorful pastel adobe homes, giant cones of hay and horse-drawn carts.The picturesque medieval cities of Sibiu and Sighisoara are as splendid as any in Europe, with old cathedrals, alleyways and cobbled streets inside the ancient walled defenseworks. Between towns, trains chug past the burned out shells of former Soviet-era factories, closed now these many years, and some of the towns are blighted by dingy blocks of communist-constructed apartment buildings, standing in colorless rows like a forest of monotonous dreariness, the extreme aesthetic of the former “workers paradise.”
Everywhere I have traveled, Romanians have been friendly, with only an occassional post-communist scowl thrown in here and there at restaurants and bars. If Romania worked at making itself more accessible to tourists, it could be a tourist hot spot in Europe that would add value - jobs, euros and investment — to its national economy.
After emerging from the glacial freeze of the communist era, it would take any country decades to build up its economy, accumulate wealth and raise the living standards of its people. Romania is hopefully following a similar trajectory as Spain and Portugal, which emerged from dictatorships in the mid-1970s to eventually become modern democracies with economies and a quality of life closer to the E.U. norm. But it took Spain and Portugal nearly three decades to arrive, and it will probably take Romania at least as long.
The key is having a prolonged period of peace and stability so that the slow march toward prosperity can gather steam. Fortunately the European Union provides that space for Romania, despite the current challenges of the eurozone. But will Romanians take advantage of this opportunity, or will the weight of its past pull it down? Economic, political and social development of any country is a delicate matter, and my crystal ball doesn’t reveal the final answer to that question. But I see many positives that Romanians can build upon.
Republished with permission from the Washington Monthly.