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Romanians Free to Roam

With the lifting of EU visa restrictions, Romanians no longer feel like second-class travellers.
By Marian Chiriac

Romanians are rejoicing at their new found freedom to roam in Western Europe from the start of next year, even though few of them can afford to.

From January 1, visa requirements for Romanians visiting the European Union will be abolished in all its 15 countries except Britain and Ireland. . Romanian officials and ordinary people alike hailed the move, agreed earlier this month, as a great triumph.

"I'm so happy," said Cosmin Manescu, a university student at the construction faculty in Bucharest. "This is the day when we can feel like real men. We are not second-class people now. From next month I'll be free to go out and see how things are. My first destination will be Venice, a place I always dreamed of visiting."

Manescu had better start saving hard if he wants to fulfil his dream. He may not have to get a visa but he will still need plenty of money.

Before leaving the country, all Romanians will be required to prove they have medical insurance and, in some cases, car insurance as well. They must produce a return ticket and evidence they possess 100 Euros for every day they spend abroad. This is double the amount required for travel to neighbouring ex-communist countries.

For the EU, most visitors will need a minimum five days' worth of travel money, a hefty 500 Euros, before being allowed to leave. "This is a huge amount of money when you think the average monthly salary in Romania is around 110 Euros," said Liliana Nedelcu, a 46-year-old engineer. "Most EU people do not regard Romania as a real European country. They think we are too different from them.

"They are afraid Romanians will travel to the EU and work there illegally. When you go to an embassy, they say, 'Oh, you're an economic migrant; you want to go there and work.' It makes you feel not human."

Travel was a particularly bitter issue for Romanians who saw the visa rules as an insult and a barrier to the growth of private business, blocking entrepreneurs from visiting partners in EU countries. A trip to the West for Romanians often meant long waits in embassy lines and hours of bureaucratic haggling.

On the other hand, many Romanians in the decade following the fall of the Iron Curtain did go abroad to work illegally or to seek asylum on the grounds of persecution at home. Worse, some took part in armed crime and all sorts of trafficking. That's why citizens of Romania, the laggard among the 12 candidates for EU accession, were shut out for a long time.

In response to repeated requests from the EU to improve border controls to block illegal immigrants and organised crime, the Bucharest authorities recently tightened travel rules. As well as the money requirements, the Romanian government issued new passports with extra security features and introduced penalties of up to 10 years in prison and confiscation of passports for Romanians who commit crimes abroad.

"Romania badly wants to join the EU and to boost the credibility of its

integration drive, even though it could be restrictive for many Romanian

citizens," government spokesman Claudiu Lucaci said recently. Unofficial data shows that around 17,000 people tried to leave Romania illegally in the first ten months of the year, up by 60 per cent from the same period last year.

Foreign minister Mircea Geoana said the authorities would be very firm with anyone who did not understand he must respect the law and the obligations Romania has assumed at the European level.

"We hope," he said, "that little by little, we will succeed in doing away with the poor reputation Romanians have acquired through crimes committed by some of our compatriots."

Marian Chiriac is a Bucharest-based journalist.