Sometimes it is better not to apply the full rigour of European rules
THERE are two reasons why Romanian farmers face an anxious first Christmas in the . One involves a lot of money; the other how to kill pigs. Revealingly, the biggest grumbling is about the pigs.
But first the money. The is threatening to hold back some €180m ($260m) in farm and rural-aid payments if the Romanian authorities miss a mid-December deadline for setting up anti-fraud controls. So far, ordinary Romanians are not up in arms about this. It helps that most commentators blame the government for the fiasco.
The second threat is more explosive. It involves persistent suggestions that the EU's animal-welfare rules may stop Romanians from slaughtering pigs for in their backyards. This tradition survived even the dark, kill-joy years of communism. As their first Euro-Christmas approaches, Romanian officials are expressing hopes that the feared crackdown will not happen. They have warned the commission that messing around with would be the quickest way to poison Romanians' rather perky attitude to the EU.
The message seems to have been heard: the signs are that will turn a blind eye to festive law-breaking on a massive scale. In the words of one EU official, "I can hardly foresee infringement procedures against traditional Romanian farmers on this front." There are so many problems that are "more pressing", he adds, starting with payment controls to ensure that farm subsidies get into the right hands.
The problem over pigs is simple. Since it joined the EU on January 1st 2007, has been bound by a directive on animal welfare that allows pigs, goats and sheep to be killed at home for personal consumption only if they are stunned with a special device before their throats are cut. That is not going to happen in most backyards. There are some 4.5m farms and smallholdings in . Astonishingly, this country of 22m people has almost a third of all the farm holdings in the EU. Many are run as subsistence farms, with a cow or two, plus horses for ploughing and transport. (The village scenes in " " were filmed not in but in .)
As the EU expands, its rules have to be applied in situations never imagined when directives were first drafted. Most rich Europeans never meet a pig. But Romanian veterinary chiefs expect as many as 1.5m pigs to be slaughtered in backyards this Christmas. In theory, stunning those pigs is now obligatory. In practice, the government has only just started discussing how it could be achieved. There are doubts about the method most commonly used in abattoirs, involving a powerful electric shock. Use electrodes in a yard covered with wet snow, and everyone watching risks a shock of their own, explains an official. "And we have a lot of snow in a Romanian winter." Guns firing captive bolts are now the favoured area for research.
During talks in last year, the Romanians asked if pig-killing might enjoy the exemption given to Muslim and Jewish butchers. The commission said no. The directive offers an exemption only for "religious rites", and Romanian practices are deemed traditional, not ritual. This distinction causes mild offence. Officials in say that pigs are killed around the feast of St Ignatius, . They may be sprinkled with holy water. Adults watching the slaughter will traditionally be fasting, and will not eat the festive dishes derived from the pig (jellied bits of head, pork cabbage rolls with polenta, blood sausages and so on) until . Some village schools give pupils the day off for the pig killing, and children are fed singed bits of skin to cheer them up. "The children will cry for the pig, because it has been their friend for a year," admits Niculae Lazar, a government vet. But backyard pigs lead better lives than industrial farm animals, he adds.
Over time, the trend is clearly towards more professional pig killing. City-dwellers visiting grandparents in the country are more squeamish than their country cousins, and they also worry about trichinosis, a nasty parasitic disease that can infect backyard pigs. One idea is to see if vets hired to carry out trichinosis tests might throw in pig-stunning free. But this would take time. "We are trying to find a balance between our traditions and our European obligations, " explains Radu Roatis, Romania's veterinary boss.
Membership of the EU will not be plain sailing for Romanian farmers. The club remains sternly inflexible in many areas. As soon as farm produce is sold commercially, the full panoply of food-safety and hygiene rules apply, even for cheese that never leaves the village. Eurocrats say such toughness is needed to maintain public support for enlargement in countries of longer-standing membership. In ultra-sanitary corners of , consumers are fussy about what they eat and feed their children. Heeding the fears of such people is part of the price of admitting countries such as to the single market.
On the edge of , in the scruffy village of Jilava, Dumitru Dumitrescu has little time for the EU's animal-welfare rules. With or without stunning, the death of a pig "goes pretty quick", he says, as he shows off the sow he is fattening up for . But the 78-year-old is all for other rules on food safety. "Romanian peasants use too many pesticides. It's not controlled properly, so it gets into the milk."
In other words, Romanians are consumers too. That makes them potential allies. When it comes to catching up with European norms, the list of Romania's gaps is long and serious. Public support will be needed to tackle many of these: from rampant corruption to border-hopping diseases such as . If Eurocrats can keep that support by leaving Christmas traditions alone, that should not make anyone else anxious.