What many hope will not change is the culture of warmth and welcome
I turned 5 years old when the Ceausescu regime fell, and ever since, grown-ups would say again and again, "Now, we will enter Europe."
Seventeen years later, I saw it happen: I had the chance to see, to feel, to actually live the moment when Romania entered the European Union.
Not that it had all been smooth. There was much talk about fears of higher prices and lost jobs; in 2003, an EU Eurobarometer study showed consumer confidence down 20%. People were worried. But with out-migration at an all time high, fear of job loss has since subsided. Some 2 million Romanians are working abroad, according to estimates by former Finance Minister Daniel Daianu, and jobs in some areas are going begging.
As my hometown of Oradea is the largest city on the Romanian side of the border with Hungary, the mayor decided to gather as many people as possible and make a human chain on New Year’s Eve that would cross the frontier.
The festivities began at 7 pm on Dec. 31, with the army marching through the central square to the front of the City Hall. The European Union flag was flown side by side with the Romanian tricolor as a crowd of officials, soldiers and citizens raised voice in song: the national anthem, "Awaken Thee, Romanian," followed by the EU anthem, Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy." Actually, hardly anyone knew the Beethoven lyrics and only a few sang. But "Awaken Thee, Romanian," forbidden by Ceausescu was embraced happily, especially by the elderly, as a confirmation of the liberty we had regained after 1989.
In fact, Romanians don’t often sing the national anthem outside of football stadiums or schools now, but on this special occasion, the pride and hope of the new European citizens was hard to miss, singing the same song that marked the country’s liberation after the 1848 European Revolution, again after the Second World War, again after the 1989 Revolution, and now after EU accession.
The anthems were followed by customary Orthodox blessings and a general recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. City officials hailed a climax in the evolution of the Romanian nation, and the opportunities that would come with it if only we would grasp them.
"This is the most significant historical moment for Romania since the Great Unification [of 1859]," gushed a journalist standing next to me. While some may disagree, he reflected the general consensus.
The ceremony ended with the departure of the army to a fanfare of music, while the crowd moved towards the Piata Independentei, Independence Square, where the celebrations continued. Unlike other New Year’s Eves, this one had the Romanian Government financing a glittering list of international musicians to perform live in all the major cities: Joe Cocker and "Europe" in Bucharest, Kaoma with their "Lambada" in Galati, "Smokey" in Cluj-Napoca, "Saragosa Band" in Bacau, "East 17" in Sibiu, "Modern Talking" in Arad, while "No Mercy" came to Oradea, along with the Goombay Dance Band, Ricky Daniel and "Sylver." Not everybody welcomed this invasion of international, late 80s early 90s music, but many were still curious to finally see the idols of the last decades in the flesh.
At midnight, the sky of Oradea was alight for 30 dazzling minutes with explosions of fireworks dedicated to the new membership. City officials handed out imitation EU identity cards, symbolizing that we were all now members of the club. Still, no one wanted to leave the centre to form the proposed human chain. Neither did they flood over the border the next day, nor in the days that followed. People seemed content to stay close to home, as always, as if nothing had changed.
But some things did change: Driving back to Vienna later that day, I crossed the border for the first time with only my Romanian Identity Card. No lines, no prolonged controls, no suspicious looks from the officers. Back in Vienna, I saw, with enormous pride, that Sibiu, one of the most beautiful cities in Romania, known in German as Hermannstadt, was designated the Cultural Capital of Europe, 2007. It would be promoted in an international campaign that had The Guardian name it one of the Top-10-tourist-destinations this year. Later I read that many students could now study at European universities at EU fees, many times lower than those for non-EU citizens. And that foreign investment is growing.
What many Romanians hope will not change is the spirit of the people, the traditionally friendly and helpful Romania, the "one-for-all-and-all-for-one" attitude that makes families so close, and is so welcoming to strangers. Romanians hope that their culture will not perish, but flourish, and be given the opportunity to make itself more appreciated, that the EU will stick by its motto of "Unity through Diversity," and embrace the Romanian nation as an equal partner, whom it will teach, but also from whom it can learn.