Dana GRUIA DUFAUT: To be a credible voice in Europe, Romania must get rid of its inferiority complex, fight corruption, draft projects, develop partnerships

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This year, Romania celebrates 10 years since its accession to the EU. Did Romania gain from its EU membership?

Undoubtedly. Romania’s accession to the EU marked the end of an highly complex preparation stage, which began in 1995, when Romania submitted its application for membership, and which entailed – in terms of legislation, economy and administration – an effort to adopt EU rules and acquis.

Internally, this alignment effort has lead to profound social, political and economic changes. Romania has taken steps towards acknowledging and guaranteeing its citizens’ fundamental rights, property protection, and also created mechanisms for ensuring the development of a market economy. Another significant positive effect of Romania’s EU membership was the diversification of financial resources, as the State began accessing European funding. Externally, as a consequence of its tighter relations with the EU and NATO, Romania became more credible to investors and, on the other hand, secured its access to the largest trade market, with the highest GDP in terms of purchasing power.

These are just a few of the arguments meant to highlight the benefits of Romania’s EU membership; however, one observation has to be made – 10 years after its accession, Romania is not yet fully integrated. Accession to the Schengen area and the Eurozone are two pending objectives and it is still unclear when they will be fulfilled…

The public is increasingly talking about the heavy costs of integration… How do you assess these costs?

EU expansion towards the East was largely due to the need to increase its market and introduce new European partners, with purchasing power.

Paradoxically, despite the fact that Romania had a number of undeniable advantages, which also contributed to the strengthening of the EU, namely a market of 22 million consumers, a cheap labour force, a geostrategic position and access to important resources – these advantages were extremely badly managed by political leaders. So, even prior to its integration, Romania was faced with the poor management of the transition from a centralised economy to a market economy, as demonstrated by the destruction of industry and agriculture. This incapacity entailed hardly bearable costs and made Romania lose numerous opportunities. In terms of “costs”, we have to mention the privatisation process of Romanian factories, which largely failed. I say this from my own experience, as a lawyer involved in numerous audits conducted under PHARE programs for privatisation, that the basic principles of these operations were good, but their management was disastrous…

On the other hand, as a consequence of Romanian leaders’ incapacity to create the instruments for the country to benefit from the resources it had been offered, EU alignment obligations entailed high costs, which lead to the full extinction of several economic sectors.Furthermore, the fact that corruption was tolerated and even encouraged at all levels caused a costly delay in all reform and modernisation processes. As a consequence, even if Romania had the highest economic growth in the EU, Romanians’ standard of living has remained low…

All these costs, which had an “internal cause”, were aggravated by the economic crisis that struck the EU, especially since 2008. Thus, in its 10 years as a full member of the EU, Romania rather experienced a Europe marked by its own crisis.

Do you think that, because of its poor preparation, Romania’s benefits from its integration in the EU were not fully felt by society?

Personally, I do not believe in the legend of Romania’s poor preparation for EU accession. I do not believe that any country that has gained EU membership prior to or after Romania was 100% prepared. Difference was made by the efforts to maintain the pace of integration and share the advantages of integration with the population.

Romania was often incoherent in its own decisions. I recall here only the inability to access European funding caused by bureaucracy, the lack of anti-corruption measures and administrative obsolescence. Another important factor was also legislative instability, which blocked numerous projects.

Nevertheless, Romania has changed enormously compared to the country I had discovered 25 years ago, when I started offering legal advice to foreign investors. However, I have to admit that everything could have been done better and faster in Romania. All that was accomplished was clouded by something negative, a “BUT”, which was also seized by foreign and local investors and by Romanians who chose to leave the country. Romania became a European country, BUT its standard of living is still one of the lowest in the EU, Romania has significant resources, BUT it does not capitalise them enough, Romania had a specialised labour force, BUT let it migrate to the West because it failed to offer better conditions, Romania has numerous business opportunities, BUT it cannot attract enough financial resources. Last, but not least, Romania is the second largest market in this European area, BUT it fails to capitalise this position within the EU, as it is not sufficiently involved in the decision-making process in Brussels…

What are the main changes that occurred in your activity sector?

My arrival in Bucharest, in the early ’90s, as a lawyer specialised in business law, coincided with the radical transformation of the lawyer profession and the birth of a business law market. Thus, I had the chance to be one of the pioneers of this profession in Romania.

I have to recall the two laws which allowed the transformation of the lawyer profession: Decree no. 90/1990, which ended the supervision exercised by the Ministry of Justice over the lawyer profession and affirmed its independent status, and Law no. 51/1995, organising the lawyer profession.

However, the major milestone in the development of the lawyer profession was the launch of the EU integration process, which meant that lawyers had to evolve in a new global legal framework and rapidly adopt the working methods of their Western colleagues. In Romania, the lawyer profession has developed much faster than the other legal professions; however, it was also exposed to European trends: a faster access to the profession, which lead to a significant increase in competition on this market, including as a consequence of the openness towards foreign lawyers. For example, in 2015 there were 62,073 lawyers in France, whereas statistics showed that Romania had approximately 23,000. This, considering that France had 18,885 lawyers in 1992, whereas Romania had only 2,900 lawyers in 1990. Last, but not least, the most profound change was brought by the economic crisis, which has not spared the Romanian legal market. The most visible change was actually in the way lawyers relate to their business. Lawyers were forced to act quickly, under pressure of internal factors relating in particular to their profession (increased competition) or external factors (demands of a less faithful clientele, lack of resources, the cultural advantage of the international law firms etc.). Thus, after a period of economic boom, the business lawyer profession oscillated between a defensive attitude (limitation of risks) and an offensive one (innovation in respect to offers and working methods, increased communication).

Have you ever thought to leave Romania and go back to France?

Many times… there were many moments when I was discouraged because the law firm I founded in Bucharest only works with private investors. And private investors were the most affected by legal instability, by the effects of corruption in the administration, by the economic unpredictability. I must confess that even now, after 25 years, I cannot get used to bureaucracy and corruption. In fact, I refuse to get used to this and, therefore, I am even more determined to succeed… People told me that being a lawyer in Romania takes courage, but I think that courage is not to practice law, but to go on the right path, regardless of all the easy, but devious paths which may be offered to you. I often enjoy evoking Plato, who said that “Courage is knowing what not to fear”.

How do you see EU’s future and Romania’s future within the EU?

I do not wish to venture in analysing EU’s future and Romania’s future within this construction. I can only say that the EU is currently living the darkest times of its existence and that it pays an awful price for the lack of vision of the political ruling classes. Crisis made it vulnerable to change, populism fuelled anti-European attitudes and xenophobia, too frequent changes of the European construction weakened its very foundation. Numerous analyses indicate the steps to be taken for ensuring a European future and all such analyses somehow indicate the need for a new organisational model, as bold as that of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman.

As for Romania’s position within the EU, as Confucius said, in order to move a mountain, one has to start by carrying away small stones. To have a credible voice in Europe, Romania must get rid of its inferiority complex, fight corruption, propose projects, develop partnerships, know exactly what place it wants to hold.