The Old Lady and New Europe

I start early one frosty morning from a small town in The Netherlands, close to the Belgian border. Someone in the ticket office, hearing my question and having the same train to catch, accompanies me to the platform and we fall into conversation. My companion speaks good English and I’ve been in the country just a few days. It occurs to me that I’ve not yet asked anyone here about the Dutch vote against the European Constitution, so I ask. She is in her sixties perhaps, dressed in a way suggestive of solid material comfort – a new woollen coat and silk headscarf. She responds eagerly.

‘Oh all these Romanians and Bulgarians – there are so many criminals now...’

‘They are all criminals?’ I ask.

‘No – but it’s too fast – I think they aren’t ready yet.’ People are shot in the streets now, she goes on, and invariably it turns out the hired assassins were ‘from there’. The reference is to a recent spate of contract killings in The Netherlands , in which criminal gangs from the Balkans are taking on their Dutch equivalents over real estate in Amsterdam. Her reservations are ‘because of Islam too’, she concedes – ‘Not the religion – as a religion its fine, but the extremists...’

The discussion moved on and then a crowded train pulled in and so our impromptu exchange broke up. I pondered that quiet conflation, afterwards, of European Union (EU) enlargement and Islamic terrorism. Here was a particularly fine example, surely, of those over-heated, under-informed imaginations which are the proud achievement of affluent Europe’s mainstream media.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time out there in the wilds. I’ll focus mainly on Romania because I know it better. She would have been surprised, perhaps, to learn how many there share her fears about the country’s ‘readiness’. Their fears tend to be derived from something like information so I guess she would find them rather dull.

‘I would be worried too, if I was from Western Europe,’ a young literary critic recently told me, for example. ‘I think you will have problems with us. With the corruption, of course.’ He meant the embezzling of EU funds. ‘But with the attitude more.’ Meaning? ‘There’s a fatalism in people here – maybe it was communism, maybe it goes deeper...’

My old lady might have learnt something from the general reluctance of Romanians to blame problems on foreigners. In 2000 the President abruptly resigned, not only from his post but from politics altogether. He went on TV to explain that in four years of trying to tackle corruption he had discovered ‘a mafia system in which a web of front organizations was backed by the highest state institutions... a world where everything is for sale...’

Confirmation of this, if any were needed, came in 2002, when it emerged that a Prefect in the region of Iasi had been offered $150,000 for his job. The Prefect’s office is one through which enormous sums from Brussels as well as Bucharest are already passing, as power is ‘devolved to the regions’ on the best EU advice. Such stories are not rare. Former communists converted old contacts and ready cash into vast fortunes during privatization.

Breeding monsters

In Bucharest four-wheel-drives (‘jeepuri’) race each other along the tree-lined boulevards in the evenings. Parking spaces are reserved for them outside the most fashionable cafés. This is a poor country. Whatever the explanation for such brutally exhibitionist forms of ‘prosperity’, it clearly has little to do with a functioning economy in any meaningful sense of the term. Some 60 or 70 contract killings have been carried out by their Bulgarian equivalents in Sofia in recent years. If the sleep of reason breeds monsters, a breakdown of social solidarity on this scale does much the same. Soft-peddling anti-Hungarian sentiment is still a vote-winner in Transylvania. Populist tycoons on the Berlusconi model, only cruder (seeing is believing), make fortunes in real estate, found political parties, buy TV stations, football clubs, newspapers – which then disseminate ‘euromyths’ tailored to the home market. The EU will mean investigation of their financial affairs and is therefore a Very Bad Thing. Accordingly, the recent rise in fuel prices is explained, not as a global phenomenon, but somewhat mysteriously as a result of imminent accession.

But Europe is hardly an innocent bystander in this. It was idle Western talk about the magical efficacy of unregulated market forces, at all times and in all places, which gave this mafia class the opportunity it needed. Its position is now almost unassailable. The election of Traian Basescu to the Presidency in December 2004 seemed to mark a turning point. He is trying to bring two of his predecessors in the post to trial, hoping finally to discredit the ‘reformed’ Communist Party. Ion Iliescu stands accused of orchestrating the violence of December 1989 as the smokescreen for what amounted to a coup d’état. Adrian Nastase stands accused of amassing a fortune in bribes. This may impress Brussels but the problem remains systemic rather than individual.

Exploiting ignorance

The West’s version of freedom after all coincides quite neatly with that of the oligarchs. The story of how Monsanto and Pioneer, for example, are using Romania and Bulgaria to try to break European opposition to genetically modified (GM) products, calls this freedom into doubt.

It’s an easier story to hear these days because as of 2006 Greenpeace at last has an office in Bucharest. One of the people you will meet there is Gabriel Paun, the activist largely responsible for holding these two biotech companies to account. The story begins in 1998 when Dima Dragos, Monsanto’s country representative in Romania, resigned over the company’s insistence that it begin sales of GM soya. The company had made large profits through the mid-1990s with conventional seeds and chemicals. Dragos could not see any commercial need to start pushing this controversial crop on to the Romanian market. It would be quite impossible to control once it arrived. Farmers would keep back a part of the harvest to re-seed or sell on to their neighbours.

And these were hard times for farmers. Here was a crop which, allegedly, only needed spraying once. The Government liked it: here was a way of making farmers rich quickly. This time the problem with officials was ignorance rather than corruption. Ignorance Monsanto took full advantage of. As weeds developed resistance to glyphosate, three or four sprayings were actually needed. But nobody knew about that back then. And last, but not least, of course, the cultivation of GM soya is illegal in the EU.

This last was clearly not the least of Monsanto’s reasons for introducing GM soya in Romania. It would set a small but vital precedent, which, once set, would smooth the way for the much more lucrative cultivation of GM rapeseed and maize in Europe. According to government statistics, 125,000 hectares of GM soya were cultivated in 2005 in Romania. About 70 per cent of this area was planted with non-certified seed; in other words, without authorization from the Government. In fact one of the new TV-channel-owning tycoons even has a sideline in farming. The GM soya on one of his farms lies inside a supposedly ‘protected area’.

It is impossible to guarantee that soya grown in Romania is GM-free

It is now almost impossible to guarantee that soya grown in Romania is GM-free. After accession the cultivation of GM soya will become illegal. There is Romanian legislation about food labelling, ignored by supermarkets and food processing companies, but good evidence that the public, given the choice, would be opposed to GM foods. How exactly Romanian farmers will react to having their produce refused by the foreign-owned supermarkets now operating in their country remains to be seen. You can be sure the big wheels at Monsanto won’t be losing much sleep over their plight.

In neighbouring Bulgaria, Monsanto began signing contracts with farmers to grow GM maize in 1999. This was ‘regulated’ by a special ‘council’, with status and powers left deliberately vague. Round-Up Ready maize was sold from 2000. Pressure from non-governmental organizations forced the Government to ban some GM organisms in 2005, maize not among them. The freedom of large companies and PR firms to manipulate millions of happy customers seems to be the first freedom guaranteed in our current conception of a just society, but here as elsewhere, this freedom has more and more critics.

The EU’s role in this seems ambivalent. It finances new water and drainage systems. Its engineers clean up refineries. And it will do more. But it is also currently financing the rapid construction of a new road network, soon to span both countries. Through the Rhodope Mountains, where Orpheus once charmed rivers out of their courses with his song, a new motorway is being built despite Bulgarian protests.

Some new roads are no doubt needed. But these have been planned in seamless co-ordination with the companies building shopping malls around the larger cities. Despite the EU’s trumpeted concerns for climate change there is no comparable investment in the extensive and popular railway network. The EU’s main role here is as globalization’s local facilitator, promoting a trade bloc: consumerism, cars, malls and the rest.

Most people want Europe because they think it will tame the oligarchs and reconnect the economy and the culture with the West. But two closely related questions remain to be answered: what is it in these societies that has caused them to neglect their own best interests? And what do Europeans really mean by freedom?

*Horatio Morpurgo* is a regular contributor to *NI* who tends to wander around the Danube and points east.

New Internationalist issue 394 magazine cover This article is from the October 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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