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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 July, 2004, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Romania's pot-holed road into Europe
By Angus Roxburgh
BBC News Online, Brussels

The European Union may sometimes seem as if it is bursting at the seams with 25 members, but two more countries - Romania and Bulgaria - are determined to join in 2007.

EU enlargement commissioner and Romanian PM
All smiles: Guenther Verheugen (right) and Adrian Nastase

Bulgaria has already completed negotiations and Romania hopes to do so this year.

But many members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and the European Commission believe it is premature to give a firm promise of entry in 2007.

MEPs, in a recent report, pointed to the state of the country's mental hospitals, to the harassment of journalists, to the lack of an independent judiciary, and - above all - to rampant corruption at all levels of public life.

On a recent visit to Bucharest, Guenther Verheugen, the EU's commissioner in charge of enlargement, was asked at a news conference whether the Romanian government was doing enough to tackle corruption.

"It lies in the nature of the problem that you do not know exactly what the situation is," he said.

"You know there is a beast in the bushes but you do not see it exactly."

Since he was standing next to the Romanian Prime Minister, Adrian Nastase, some of the local journalists in the hall muttered: "Why doesn't he just look beside him?"

But the tactful Mr Verheugen merely expressed the hope that the government would exercise "zero tolerance" towards corruption "at whatever level it may occur".

Judicial reform

According to Transparency International, which monitors levels of corruption, Romania ranks 83rd in the world - the worst in Europe apart from Albania.

Romanian soldiers at Nato ceremony
Romania's recent Nato membership boosted EU entry hopes

Rights activist Mircea Toma of the Media Monitoring Agency says the corruption includes everything from greasing palms to get medical treatment, to using contacts to get jobs, promotion or contracts.

But what most urgently needs reform, he says, is the judicial system, which is still under political control in a way that does not befit a prospective EU member.

"There is no independent tool to fight against corruption," Mr Toma says.

"You cannot fight against yourself being corrupt!

"You need somebody else to treat you of corruption. Here, the prosecutor, the general attorney's office, is not free, it is formally under political control, and even if the judges have some independence there are still a lot of tools to influence them."

Late last month thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest against what they regard as the lack of action by the authorities in cracking down on corruption.

Hospital hell

Journalists who try too hard to expose corruption can face reprisals.

Daniel Neamu, an investigative reporter on Evenimentul Zilei, was beaten up after a series of reports on police corruption.

I went to see him in his office to talk about that but discovered he has also been active uncovering the murky state of Romania's psychiatric hospitals, which Amnesty International recently described as "deplorable".

Romanian border crossing
Many bridges must be crossed before Romania enters the EU

Neamu filmed secretly in a mental hospital and saw what he describes as "the worst living conditions I have ever experienced".

"There were two people sharing one bed, because they do not have enough space for the patients, there was no proper food, there were rats in the corridors, and worst of all was the smell - the terrible smell."

His pictures showed patients lying on bare bedsteads, and filthy wash-rooms.

'No guarantee'

Another example of what MEPs say is Romania's unfitness to join the EU came with the awarding of a two billion euro (1.3bn) contract to build a new motorway to the US company, Bechtel.

It is not just that the EU is already planning to finance a separate motorway which, like the Bechtel one, will link Bucharest to Hungary and western Europe.

Worse, the contract was awarded without a tender - flouting one of the most basic rules of EU economic life.

Asked about this at a news conference, Prime Minister Nastase said it had been a "positive lesson" - indicating that though he had no intention of reversing the decision, he might not let it happen again.

The motorway has also angered environmentalists who say it will jeopardise important wildlife habitats and carve a swathe right through a World Heritage area of Saxon villages in Transylvania.

MEP Joost Lagendijk says: "It's another proof that things are not OK yet in Romania."

"I therefore think we should not be afraid of suggesting that the accession might be postponed, because I would be against taking in a country where such things are still happening."

A digital clock in central Bucharest counts down the days to 1 January 2007.

But there is no guarantee - despite the hopes expressed by EU leaders at a recent summit - that Romania will actually join on that date.

Even if Romania concludes negotiations on time, the European Commission says it will continue to monitor it closely to see whether it fulfils the promises it makes in the accession agreement.

If it does not, Romanians should not bank on 2007. Entry could easily be postponed.

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