Enthusiastic about the EU, Romanians take Brexit vote hard

Another in the weekly series Who is 'Europe'? on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.'

Vadim Ghirda/AP
Romania's chief anticorruption prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, left, speaks to her mother, Ileana Lascu, after receiving the French Legion of honor during a ceremony in Bucharest in June. Kovesi, has been praised by EU countries for her anticorruption fight.

Sitting on a sunny afternoon in University Square in the center of the Romanian capital, Cristian Teodorescu and a colleague are chatting about the recent Brexit vote in the UK.

“It makes me annoyed that the UK voted this way due to immigration. We’re in the EU, but there are still strong feelings against Bulgaria and Romania,” the young doctor says.

“Romanians don’t feel like we are second-class citizens, but more that others are racist against us,” his colleague chimes in.

After eight years of negotiation, Romania joined the European Union in 2007, at the same time as neighboring Bulgaria; it missed joining alongside Poland, Hungary, and eight other countries in 2004 in what was the largest expansion of the EU since its founding. At the time, many questioned the readiness of the two nations, which were among the poorest in Europe and today still deal with rampant corruption.

Citizens were granted visa-free travel immediately, but final restrictions on their right to work across the European Union were lifted only in 2014. Neither country has yet gained admission to the EU's Schengen area, which would allow all border controls to be dropped as part of the 22-country zone, even though several European leaders have said they fulfill all requirements.

In the lead-up to the lifting of labor restrictions, media and politicians across Western Europe – in the UK especially – painted alarmist pictures of huge influxes of Romanians and Bulgarians coming for work or welfare benefits. Even so, more than 3 million Romanians now work and live around the EU, with more than 170,000 of those in the UK. And because of that, the Brexit campaign, with its strong anti-immigrant rhetoric, struck a nerve.

For some Romanians, the Brexit referendum was commentary on how well they and others from former communist Eastern Europe had been accepted into the EU family – and it wasn't positive. The vote left like a blow to many in a country that has moved very quickly to identify itself with the interests and values of Europe overall – even prompting the country's ambassador to the UK to ask Romanian media not to fan "collective hysteria" in its wake. 

“People in Romania still feel like we are not treated as equals, and that is not really changing,” says Cristian Barbu, a young insurance agent in Bucharest.

Fighting corruption – and brain drain

Sitting around a table in their crumbling villa office in central Bucharest, three members of Funky Citizens, a Romanian civil society NGO, are busily discussing their country’s position in the EU. They muse about the impact that joining has had at home – from improved transparency to brain drain – as well as Romanians' attitudes toward the EU as the "European project" comes under sharp scrutiny across the continent.

“We don't have a generational difference that goes 180 degrees,” says Codru Vrabie, who is middle-aged. “I think most people are on same page. Whether they care or not, they will think the EU is a good thing, or at least there is nothing bad about it. Those who blame the EU for things represent about 1 percent of Romanians,” he adds.

In fact, the latest Eurobarometer survey showed that 57 percent of Romanians had a “totally positive” image of the EU, versus 37 percent across the EU as a whole. Thirty-two percent of Romanians had a neutral image of the EU, versus 38 percent in the EU overall. 

Romania has benefited from access to EU funds and technical assistance, as well as greater movement. But one of the main positives has been the EU-supported drive to clean up corruption. In 2015 alone 1,250 individuals, including many top politicians, were brought to trial for alleged involvement in medium- and high-level corruption. 

“Joining the EU helped with anticorruption efforts. DNA [a specialized anticorruption agency] was founded because EU accession demanded it,” says Cosmin Pojoranu.

But there have also been negatives. Romanian agricultural producers have struggled under a host of new regulations, while many highly skilled professionals, especially doctors and nurses, have headed abroad, where they can now work without restrictions and earn far higher wages.

“The brain drain isn’t a downside of being a member of the EU; it is a downside of not being able to keep your own people,” suggests Mr. Pojoranu.

Equals? Not yet.

Strolling through one of the busy squares in Bucharest, 20-something Mihaela Popescu reflects on Romania since 2007.

“Joining the EU has led to more opportunities for Romania, increased access to outside markets and economic improvements,” she says. But she says that the Brexit vote could have an impact on future potential members: “Great Britain has a big influence so some may not want to enter the EU now.

“It will take a long time for us to be treated as equals.”  

While disappointed by the anti-Romanian sentiment that is still prevalent in many EU countries, some Romanians look at the situation in a decidedly practically manner.

“Is it really that important if we feel second-class or not? Do we have the same rights as everyone else in the EU? Yes,” says Radu Andrei Szucs, a psychologist and another member of NGO Funky Citizens. “Do we have the same access as everyone else to all the resources that the bloc offers? Almost, except for the Schengen. Do we have a say? Yes.”

That, he implies, is what really matters.

“I believe concerns are reasonable, but I call on everybody to treat things with calm and understand that the exit process and its implications on the EU and Romanian citizens will not take place overnight,” Romania’s ambassador to the UK, Dan Mihalache, told Romanian media shortly after the referendum. “I would call on the media at home – now that I’ve seen several shows – not to trigger collective hysteria.” 

This was part 15 of Who is 'Europe'?, a weekly series on how European natives and residents are responding to pressures from terrorism, migration, nationalism, and the 'European project.' See all of the stories on the series homepage.

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