BUCHAREST, Romania – Romania risks always being treated like an outsider in Europe unless it tackles issues such as government corruption, the Eastern European nation's president warned Thursday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Traian Basescu said Romania has a serious image problem — one that he acknowledged has fueled Western European fears of a flood of welfare-seeking immigrants and petty criminals if the country is ever admitted into Europe's border-free zone, known as Schengen.
"Let's answer this positively and make it a national objective to join the Schengen zone," the 61-year-old Romanian leader said.
Passport-free travel in much of the continent under the so-called Schengen agreement is considered one of the European Union's signal achievements. The zone is made up of 26 countries, including some non-EU states.
But the Netherlands has led opposition to Romania and Bulgaria joining the Schengen zone, and Germany and Finland have also said they are reluctant to let the poor EU members in, citing organized crime, corruption and flaws in those nations' judicial systems.
Romania is one of the EU's most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International. Basescu said the tainted image of the ex-communist state is a main reason why it is unable to tap EU funds for development — people fear the money will simply vanish.
Referring to some well-publicized domestic corruption scandals involving several ministers, Basescu wondered if Romania was "willing to sacrifice two or three corrupt officials for obstructing the national interest or not?"
"This is a test for the political class," the Romanian president said, urging his fellow countrymen not to feel singled out and to simply get their house in order.
Embezzlement and fraud long went unpunished in Romania, particularly for those with high-level connections, but in recent years there have been many more prosecutions of senior officials.
Former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase is serving a two-year sentence for corruption-related charges, and last month two ministers were convicted of corruption and sentenced to three years in prison.
Nonetheless, petty graft remains a problem, with allegations of corruption among police and customs officials. Those involved in the transportation industry have called for Romania to be admitted to Schengen, arguing it would eliminate bribery and corruption at border crossing points.
Basescu, a former ship captain, has been president since 2004 and survived two impeachments. His current — and last — term ends in 2014.
About 7 million Romanians voted to remove him from office in July on grounds that he had overstepped his constitutional authority by meddling in government affairs, but he survived because the turnout was too low.
The center-left government which initiated the impeachment was criticized by the EU and Washington for not respecting the rule of law in its bid to unseat the president.
Basescu has a reputation of being outspoken and sometimes confrontational, but in his interview with AP, he appeared relaxed, laughing and gesticulating at times. Asked about his weaknesses or failures, he responded frankly, "Please don't ask me to make myself vulnerable now."
Basescu told the AP that next week he planned to appeal to Parliament — the same Parliament that impeached him last year — to put the national interest above personal interests.
It was a sign that he appears to be focusing less on political rivalries and more on his country's place in the European architecture — as well as, perhaps, his personal legacy in crafting it.
Dealing with corrupt ministers, reforming laws or meeting other EU demands "are minor issues compared to the importance of becoming a country that is in Schengen," he said.