Though countries like Greece and Spain dominate coverage of the euro mess, Europe’s real crisis is much wore widespread and the effects are much more worrying than the headlines might lead you to think.A lot of the damage is happening in countries that aren’t in the euro, but whose economic and political journeys toward democratic prosperity are at risk. Take Romania. (Please! as the old comics used to say.)Romania is one of Europe’s poorest and least developed countries, and political tensions over the usual — an IMF package, austerity programs — have set off a major brawl between President (possibly soon to be ex-President) Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta that could turn yet another EU member state into a basket case.The sparring began over which top official would represent Romania at last week’s EU summit, and has now spiraled into a contest for supremacy with the president and the constitutional court in one corner, and the prime minister and his parliament in the other. The BBC reports:
Mr Ponta’s USL party passed a law to simplify the process of having the president impeached. That law still needs to be considered by the Constitutional Court.The Constitutional Court itself has accused Mr Ponta of trying to dismantle it, and on Tuesday complained to the European Commission that he was threatening the court’s independence.The USL, in power since May, says that the court is heavily influenced by Mr Basescu, whose popularity has dropped since he imposed austerity measures agreed with the EU and IMF in 2010.
Top European officials began to worry that the rule of law in Romania (never particularly secure, frankly, from the Middle Ages to the present day) is slipping. The Financial Times reports that Eurocrats were literally tweeting with alarm over the Romanian meltdown:
The political stand-off is raising international alarm. Viviane Reding, the European Union’s justice and home affairs commissioner, said on Twitter on Tuesday she was “seriously concerned” about recent attacks on the independence of Romania’s constitutional court.
Then things got worse. The Parliament impeached the President under the controversially constitutional procedures that it had earlier passed. Both the US and the EU have issued statements of concern about the undermining of Romanian institutions and the rule of law.The crisis is not just undermining the economic standing of the country; it threatens to block key Romanian objectives. What much of the Romanian public wants most is Romanian accession to the Schengen Agreement, the accord that lets citizens of the EU states who belong to it travel freely among all member states. For hundreds of thousands of desperately poor Romanians, trapped inside the low-wage, corrupt post-socialist Romanian mess, this represents their best hope of a better life.As the FT notes, in order to burnish its qualifications for this exclusive club and to respond to other EU pressures for reform of its weak and corrupt state, Romania has taken on unforgiving austerity measures, slashing public sector wages by 25 percent and hacking away at benefits; the strain on the county is reaching an all-time high as Basescu and Ponta trade blows.The increasingly inward turning publics of the richer European countries are sick and tired of the seemingly endless needs and problems of their poorer and often less well organized fellow member states. Romania has more than 600,000 Romani people (more familiarly if less respectfully known as gypsies). Many are poorly educated and socially marginalized even by Romanian standards. In times of economic trouble and ethnic tension over immigration, no country in western Europe looks forward to an influx.Romania is a bad fit in the EU and was probably admitted prematurely. But if the euro mess hadn’t blown up, over time the EU and Romania might have figured out a way to make things work. The situation now is less hopeful.The euro isn’t the only governance problem that threatens the European project, but the preoccupation of European elites with their horrible currency experiment and its devastating consequences means that there is ever less political capital and will available to deal with other pressing matters. The southeast of the EU is fraying: Cyprus is looking to Moscow along with non-member Serbia, Greece is growing alienated. Progress toward resolving the Balkan problems in Bosnia and Kosovo seems to have stopped and even gone into reverse. Corruption in Bulgaria and Romania is if anything a growing problem. The EU’s influence in Ukraine is on the wane. In Hungary and now Romania some basic legal and constitutional principles are at risk.American strategic calculations about where the world is going and what our priorities should be have rested on the assumption that a competent and powerful European Union would secure NATO’s eastern flank by promoting the modernization, democratization and pacification of the Balkans and the western reaches of the former USSR. In the Baltic states that calculation still looks pretty good; in the Balkans and beyond, things are no longer so certain.If the present period of EU weakness and distraction continues for some time, and unfortunately there are increasing signs pointing in that direction, the US is going to have to think hard about what its priorities and interests are in this part of the world.But there could be more. The political structures of both NATO and the EU mean that the degradation of democracy or the erosion of western influence in southeastern Europe is more than a local question. Any NATO member can veto joint action by the alliance. And EU members who remain in the club but are hostile to its core values and ambitions can wreak all kinds of havoc.The bottom line: The EU is in much more trouble than the media’s focus on the euro would lead you to believe — and America’s interests are much more affected by these problems than perhaps even most of our national leaders understand.