Speech of Her Majesty Margareta of Romania, Clingendael Institute, The Hague, 9 October 2019
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am honoured to be with you today, not only because I recognise the Netherlands Institute of International Relations to be one of Europe’s leading think-tanks but also because I admire your double mission of both informing the public and contributing to the debate on security questions, but also of training policymakers, military, and businessmen from around the continent as part of your Diplomatic Academy activities. It is this dual role that makes you quite unique among think-tanks in Europe
I must begin by recalling the hospitality which you extended to my father the late King when he came to speak to you 17 years ago. It’s worth remembering where Romania was at that time. It was still not a member of either NATO or the European Union, although it was a candidate for both. It still faced major problems of integration in Europe and serious questions about its European vocation. My father fought hard to address these questions and dispel misconceptions, and the platform you provided him then was an important one. Months after he spoke before you in 2002, Romania was invited to join NATO, and exactly two years after that we became full members.
Although NATO membership was not directly connected to European Union membership, my father predicted 17 years ago that NATO’s enlargement also meant an accelerated European Union enlargement – indeed this is what happened in 2007. The fact that you were ready to listen to our arguments then was important. So, yet again, I express our gratitude for this.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I don’t think you invited me here to put a positive veneer or a “spin” on the challenges facing my country, or to try to make light of the difficulties that we encounter. People in your country, including many of your politicians, were undoubtedly right when they argued in the early 2000s that a true and complete European integration would take time, and that the mere act of joining the Union would need to be followed by many decades of hard work.
Nevertheless, I would like to argue that instead of being half empty, the glass is actually half full, and that both Romania itself and the European Union with Romania at its core are making progress.
Let us remember that, for decades, we would hear that the European Union’s greatest strength was the incentive it gave applicant countries to implement serious reforms before they were allowed to join as full EU members, that the acquis communautaire represented one of Europe most potent reform mechanisms. That optimistic view prevailed when 10 countries from central Europe joined in 2004.
Yet, somehow, when Romania joined together with Bulgaria three years after the initial wave, the opposite view took hold; namely that my country and Bulgaria were allowed into the EU without having been obliged to undertake the necessary reforms, that they were allowed to join for political rather than practical reasons. Indeed, the argument has flipped even further. So, while in the past the question which European governments used to face was whether a particular country was ready for the European Union, the argument is now being reversed and the real question is whether the European Union is ready for its partner countries. Well, I believe this argument to be not only wrong, but risky.
To start with, it is worth remembering that the pressure on Romania and the reforming procedures that were put in place before the country joined the EU were quite serious and sustained. I can assure you, as a person who was in the thick of it at the time, that a huge effort was undertaken. Nobody who worked on the project then believed that Romania was being given an easy “entry ticket” into the EU. Indeed, quite the opposite: many of the country’s officials and administrators thought that Romania was being asked to do what other former communist countries were not expected to accomplish.
Of course, at least a logical argument can be made that we should have spent more time preparing before joining the Union. But this argument is, I believe, equally difficult to sustain. I do not think it is necessary to argue before this expert audience that the idea of keeping Romania or Bulgaria outside of the EU would have been an incentive for them to undertake more reforms is misconceived.
In reality, Europe had to strike a balance between making the promise of membership credible enough to encourage countries to reform, but also tough enough to persuade candidate countries that the reforms they were expected to implement should be serious. I think it is undeniably the case that the Union got it right in the sense that it made the promise of membership real and possible, but that it also made the insistence on reforms equally real and immediate.
One only needs to look at the example of Turkey to realise what happens when the two processes – namely the process of incentives versus the process of insistence on deep structural reforms – gets out of synch; the outcome is that neither one, nor the other become achievable. So, yes, enlargement to my country was at least partly a leap of faith. But it was the same when Greece joined the European Union, and when Spain and Portugal did the same. All these were leaps of faith which turned into a loyal partnership. And there is no reason why the same should not apply to Romania.
You may wonder why I revisit arguments which were last heard more than a decade ago. The reason is that the way we frame the past greatly influences the way we interpret the present. Believe that it was a mistake to include Romania in the European Union at that time, and you are more likely to believe today that, whatever we do, we won’t be able to catch up with the rest of the continent. However, if you see Romania’s integration as part of a more or less continuous process, then the problems we encounter today become essentially challenges which need to be overcome, rather than supposed mistakes of times past.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I do believe that, in our effort to improve the functioning of our Union, we have become perhaps too obsessed with process rather than vision, so we often forget just how huge our achievement has been. A continent divided for two generations by the Cold War is now united again. We did that with mutual sacrifices not because we wanted to lower the cost of tomatoes or cars in our countries, but because we shared the same vision and the same values. And we still share the same values and inclinations today.
Yes, we have problems. There has been phenomenal economic growth in the former communist half of the continent, and my country is one of the fastest-rising economies in Europe. But that has not erased the significant wealth gaps between the eastern and western halves of the continent. Three decades have passed since the end of communism, but we probably need another three decades to erase fully the noxious effects of communist dictatorship and mismanagement. In short, an entire generation will pass before we are truly and fully united, and almost none of those who were mature people when the events of 1989 in my country removed the communist dictator may live to see the day when Europe’s east-west economic divide completely disappears. I point this out not to find excuses or apportion blame, but merely to explain the sense of frustration felt in many new member states.
We also have different perspectives on social life and customs. We are more religious, more patriotic and more suspicious of high levels of immigration. It may be that some in the West don’t like this. But to dismiss our feelings as just ‘racism and xenophobia’ or to divide everything between ‘progressive’ – by which we mean Western – and ‘reactionary’ is clearly counter-productive. It is also clearly wrong to argue that our values are not European values; they may not be fashionable in some parts of Europe but are values which belong to the continent. When the 2015 immigration crisis hit our continent, Romania was one of the countries which accepted that the burden of settling these immigrants should be shared.
I repeat: none of this is to suggest that the new member states should be let off the hook, regardless of what happens in their countries. The fight against corruption, for instance, should continue unremittingly. And there is no question that some of the political developments in my country raised eyebrows among our European partners.
But the starting point for all activities is to stop patronising the new member states, and to avoid threatening them by artificially extended conditionality clauses. Various proposals to use political conditionality in the disbursement of funds from the next seven-year budget of the Union in return for certain political concessions are not only illegal under existing EU treaties, but also guaranteed to divide rather than unite Europe.
As far back as 2011, Romania was judged by the European Commission to have met all the necessary technical conditions for full Schengen membership. Yet one after another, conditions were added. We are now told in private – by officials in a number of countries including, I am sad to say, your own country – that domestic political considerations make it difficult to include Romania in Schengen. I can understand this argument. But I hope that you can also understand that similar domestic pressures are upon our political leaders, from our own people who cannot accept that they should be in an inferior position to that of fellow Europeans.
Still, I think we all deserve to congratulate ourselves for what we have achieved in the past two decades, and how much the continent has changed for the good since my father was here in 2002. Romanians are almost three time wealthier today than we were when we shook off communism. There is a national consensus in my country that there is no other place Romania can be but at the heart of NATO and the EU. Indeed – and as I often remind our European brethren, the true idealists about Europe are now mostly in the eastern part of the continent; the real cynics are often in the West.
In short, Romania’s European vocation remains unshaken. And so, I trust, is your friendship and support for our Nation.
Thank you very much!