Out of the Darkness

Carriages are as common as cars in Romanian villages such as Berghia.
Carriages are as common as cars in Romanian villages such as Berghia. "We have to change our way of life," said one analyst, summarizing requirements for joining the E.U. (Photos By Travis Fox -- Washingtonpost.com)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 12, 2006

GOLAIESTI, Romania -- Inside the local bar in this frozen village in Romania's bleak northeast, Oana Gatu poured mugs of hot wine for a couple of farmers and talked about how the European Union is going to change Christmas.

In villages like this one, she said, families slaughter a pig for the holiday using the traditional method: Two or three men hold the animal down while someone drives a long knife through its neck and into its heart. The spouting blood is captured for sausage, and the pig can take several minutes to die.

Gatu said everyone here knows that cherished tradition will become illegal as soon as Romania joins the E.U., as early as Jan. 1. Membership in the affluent, exclusive club of nations will mean abiding by strict Europe-wide standards for everything from pig slaughtering to beach cleanliness, and it's a price most Romanians are eager to pay.

"We're too poor," Gatu said. "We have to get to the next level."

As the hoped-for entry draws near, Romania's experience illustrates how expansion of the European Union is changing not just the union but the states that join. Like eight other East European nations that entered in 2004, Romania is busy erasing the legacy of half a century of communism and trying to build institutions that bear the stamp of approval of E.U. headquarters in Brussels.

It is struggling to embrace Western-style market economics and multiparty politics and trying to control corruption. But some aspects of life here, such as discrimination against the country's large Roma, or Gypsy, population, remain stubbornly resistant to the E.U.'s pressure for change.

Much of Western Europe is feeling fatigue with the half-century-old project to stitch together a superstate on the European continent. But in this country of 22 million, enthusiasm for it is practically a national obsession. Polls consistently show that about 70 percent favor E.U. entry and regard it both as a final break with the Soviet era and a return to Romania's European roots.

Store names across the country capture the spirit: Eurovet sells cat food, Eurofarma fills prescriptions. Blue E.U. flags flutter alongside the Romanian flag on government buildings and utility poles in even the most remote corners of the nation.

"All of Romanians consider the E.U. accession like being a key moment, the moment when Romania will be back in Europe," President Traian Basescu, a former oil tanker captain, said in an interview. "We are very determined to fulfill all our obligations."

A digital clock in a main square in the capital, Bucharest, counts down the days to New Year's Day. E.U. officials have been publicly optimistic about a January entry for Romania, along with neighbor Bulgaria, which would expand the roll of members to 27 and extend the bloc east to the Black Sea.

But membership -- along with billions of dollars in desperately needed development aid and investment -- could be delayed a year if E.U. leaders decide at a meeting in June that the two candidates haven't made enough progress toward honest, open and modern government.

To some Romanians, that would be fine. Under the E.U. flag, "life will change in the countryside for the worse," said Emil Imre Szabo, a dairy farmer in Transylvania. "There are too many requirements, and we won't be able to meet them."

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