News / Europe

Eastern EU States Under Pressure Amid Social Unrest

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the government at the University Square in central Bucharest, Romania, January 23, 2012.
Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the government at the University Square in central Bucharest, Romania, January 23, 2012.
Stefan Bos

Eastern members of the European Union are facing social and political turmoil due to the EU's austerity measures imposed on them. The EU and other institutions have insisted that member states enact sharp budgetary restrictions and carry out other policy changes in return for the many billions of dollars of financial assistance that have been committed to shore up eurozone finances.

The resulting political tensions have revived a debate over how much sovereignty eastern EU members should give up, more than two decades after freeing themselves from the Soviet Union's sphere of influence.

Impoverished Romania, one of several European Union states that shed communist control more than 20 years ago, is under pressure again these days.

Rough demonstrations

Scores of people have been injured during two weeks of sometimes violent protests against austerity measures and perceived widespread corruption in the capital, Bucharest, and other Romanian cities.

Angry crowds of protesters from all parts of Romanian society - from students disillusioned by an education system they say leads to nowhere, to pensioners and nurses who have no financial resources - have been demanding the resignation of the government and president.

Prime Minister Emil Boc says he understands their frustration. On Monday he dismissed his foreign minister for calling the demonstrators "inept and violent slum dwellers."

Romania's worst social unrest in years has been linked to reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank, in exchange for more than $27 billion in financial assistance.

Discussion about EU

Boc’s center-right administration was forced to reduce public wages by 25 percent while increasing taxes. He also slashed benefits, and cut health care and education costs. Romania's experiences have fueled an ongoing debate in Eastern Europe about putting limits on how much influence the EU and other Western institutions should have over member states' internal affairs.

Prime Minister Boc nonetheless says he still favors a more centralized Europe.

"We should not be afraid to talk about a United States of Europe. Maybe not today, [or] not tomorrow. But I think we should... start to talk about that internally in our countries and, after that, at the European level," said Boc. "Because a United States of Europe does not mean that the states will lose their [character], their assets. But [it will] improve the ultimate way [we] act together in order to be able to succeed in a global competitiveness, which is not easy. We should start to talk about that."

In neighboring Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban says harsh austerity and political demands by the international community are a threat to his nation's sovereignty. He has been criticized by the EU and the United States for broadening government controls over previously independent institutions - the central bank, news media and the judiciary. His government also has limited churches and religious groups recognized by the state.

EC exerts pressure

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has threatened legal action if Hungary does not relax government control of the central bank and the courts, and over the protection of private data.

Orban, who was meeting Tuesday with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, said recently it is very difficult to strike a balance between the EU's demands and his electorate's needs.

"As a politician, it is difficult to imagine that I have to have to stand up in the Hungarian parliament and I have to say to the people who are elected representatives, members of the parliament elected by the people, that, 'OK, we have an idea. We would like to go [in] that direction but because of the European Union Commission ... we have to go [elsewhere].' So, I think I would not survive even for a minute [with] that kind of discussion. So therefore, politically, it's a very difficult question," said Orban.

Prime Minister Orban later said he is prepared to change some of Hungary's laws to suit the EU, but no quick agreement is expected.

Hungary's predicament is not unique. Slovakia faces early elections in March, after the government collapsed in a vote about increasing the size of the eurozone nations' rescue fund.

And in the Czech Republic, there is domestic political haggling over a new treaty on EU budget rules.

The financially troubled EU is due to expand to 28 nations next year, when Croatia joins. Meanwhile, there is mounting pressure on the former communist member states to adjust their policies and help the union look more united.

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